WWII Hero Who Aided Survivors of USS Indianapolis Receives Navy Cross

USS Indianapolis, 1939 (USN file image)

Published Jan 11, 2021 7:02 PM by The Maritime Executive

Seventy-five years after the end of the war in the Pacific, the U.S. Navy has awarded its second-highest honor to a chaplain who died in the sinking of the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis

Lt. Thomas M. Conway, a Catholic priest, was one of about 900 men who managed to abandon ship after a Japanese submarine sank the Indianapolis on July 30, 1945. Survivors recalled his efforts to minister to those near him during the multi-day ordeal that followed. 

“Today, we are here to right the record and send a message that we shall never forget,” said Secretary of the Navy Kenneth J. Braithwaite. “My mother taught me that it’s never to late to say your sorry. Today the Navy is sorry for not recognizing Chaplain Conway’s heroism, dedication and courage sooner. Throughout the brutal war in the Pacific, Father Conway stood by his men and provided comfort, leadership, and spiritual guidance when needed most. I can think of no better example of honor, courage, and commitment."

Father Conway enlisted in the Navy in September 1942 and served at several naval stations along the East Coast before transferring to the Pacific Fleet. In 1944, he was assigned as the chaplain aboard USS Indianapolis, a celebrated heavy cruiser that served through nearly the entirety of the war in the Pacific. 

On July 16, 1945, Indianapolis set sail from San Francisco, bound for Tinian Island at high speed. Unbeknownst to her crew, she was carrying components for an atomic bomb, which would soon be dropped on Hiroshima. Indianapolis arrived at Tinian ahead of schedule on July 26 and safely delivered her cargo. After a quick refueling stop at Guam, she made a course for Leyte.

However, about halfway through the voyage, she was spotted and intercepted by the Japanese sub I-58. The submarine fired six torpedoes, striking Indianapolis multiple times. The cruiser sank in just 12 minutes, and there was little time for sending a distress signal or lowering lifeboats. 

About 880 members of her crew managed to abandon ship, including Conway, but the Navy was not immediately aware that the cruiser had gone down. The survivors spent four days in the water before an anti-submarine patrol plane spotted them. Over the intervening period, shark attacks, dehydration, exposure and drowning claimed the lives of hundreds. Just 316 out of the 1,195 sailors and Marines who sailed out with Indianapolis survived.

According to the Navy, Conway swam through the shark-infested waters between clusters of drifting sailors, many of whom were severely injured, in order to provide them encouragement and comfort. After three days of working to aid his shipmates, Conway finally succumbed to exhaustion and died. His efforts were credited as a major reason 67 of his shipmates in his group were ultimately rescued. 

“Father Conway will go on to be a beacon of service above self for all who serve in the Navy and Marine Corps. His actions will inspire others who at dark and challenging moments in their lives must follow their heart to do their duty,” Braithwaite said. “For me personally this has never been more relevant than during the very events of this week. When you are entrusted to serve the men and women of the Navy and Marine Corps, you must always choose as Father Conway did, to do what you must do - your duty; rather than what you could do for yourself.”