The USS Indianapolis sails through Pearl Harbor in 1937. The heavy cruiser was the last major U.S. Navy ship sunk in World War II. (Navy)
Lt. Thomas Conway, a Catholic priest, was assigned to the heavy cruiser during its top-secret mission in July 1945 to deliver parts of the atomic bomb “Little Boy” to the U.S. Army Air Forces Base on the island of Tinian in the Northern Marianas. The bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945.
After completing the mission, the Indianapolis headed to Guam and was then ordered to join other surface forrces in the Philippines’ Leyte Gulf to train for the invasion of Japan.
At 12:15 a.m. on July 30, 1945, as the Indianapolis was en route, two torpedos from a Japanese submarine struck the cruiser, which sank in 12 minutes.
About 300 of the 1,196 crewmen aboard went down with the ship. The remaining 890 went into the water, where they wre stranded for five nights and four days, facing exposure, dehydration and repeated shark attacks.
Because no distress signal was sent, and the ship’s failure to arrive in Leyte Gulf was not reported, the Navy only learned of the sinking four days later, when survivors were spotted by the crew of a PV-1 Ventura on routine patrol. Only 316 sailors survived.
During this terrible ordeal, Conway, who first joined the Navy in 1942, ignored his own personal safety amid the dangerous waters and swam to sailors to provide them with comfort, prayer and to administer sacraments, the service said.
This continued for several days until Aug. 2, when Conway ultimately surrendered due to fatigue. But he did not die in vain. His actions played a substantial role in saving the lives of 67 of his fellow sailors, according to the Navy.
For his actions during that horrific event more than 70 years ago, Conway was awarded the Navy Cross — the second highest valor award for sailors and Marines. A ceremony was held at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Waterbury, Connecticut, Jan. 8.
Retired Navy Capt. Monsignor John Bevins, who previously served as a pastor at the Basilica, accepted the award on his behalf.
“We are grateful and proud to call Father Conway one of our own” Bevins said, according to a Navy news release. “His legacy of service and sacrifice is one that we all can try to uphold and emulate. This award is recognition of that and everything he stood for.”
Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite apologized for the delay in recognizing Conway’s contributions, and said that Conway “stood by his men and provided comfort, leadership and spiritual guidance when needed most.”
“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, according to a Navy news release.
“For me personally this has never been more relevant than during the very events of this week,” Braithwaite said. “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.”
Conway was originally from Waterbury, Connecticut. Family members of Indianapolis survivors, along with the Waterbury Veterans Memorial Committee and local lawmakers attended the award ceremony last week.