As the USS Indianapolis headed through the Philippine Sea, at approximately 12:14am July 30, 1945, she was hit by two torpedoes from a Japanese submarine. The first took off her bow; the second blasted amidships. The disaster has become the Navy’s worst-ever loss of life at sea — a tragedy of horrific proportions. The Indianapolis went under in 12 chaotic minutes.
More than 300 of the 1,195 sailors and Marines on board went down with the ship.
A month before the official ending of World War II, Father Thomas Conway became the last Catholic chaplain — the last chaplain of any denomination — to give his life for his flock during the war. The chaplain was one of the initial 880 survivors who would face several days at sea under horrendous conditions. He died with the those in the water after the ship was hit.
But from the moment the ship started to sink, Father Conway’s actions were the stuff that distinguishes real heroes.
That fateful July day chaotic conditions saw men scattered over the open ocean. Everyone didn’t have a chance to get a kapok life jacket. Many were injured and covered in the ship’s fuel oil. Soon they would face attacks by sharks. And the Navy would not know for days of the ship’s disappearance.
“Father Conway served as their spiritual mentor and their supervisor for three and a half days,” said Robert Dorr, secretary of the Waterbury Veterans Memorial Committee in Waterbury, Connecticut.
In the last several years the committee has tried to have this brave chaplain, a native of the city, awarded the Navy Cross posthumously.
“He was in water with 400 survivors on a floating cargo net,” Dorr said. “As they were dying, he gave the last rites, or baptized them or gave them absolution.”
With Father Conway was Capt. Lewis Haynes, the medical doctor aboard. In a personal remembrance of the ordeal printed in The Saturday Evening Post in 1955, Haynes paid tribute to Father Conway, saying that “we have found one comfort — a strong belief to which we cling. God seems very close. Much of our feeling is strengthened by the chaplain, who moves from one group to another to pray with the men. The chaplain, a priest, is not a strong man physically, yet his courage and goodness seemed to have no limit.”
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