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U.S. Navy honors Thomas Conway, hero priest of World War II

Memorial statue of Rev. Thomas Conway. (Meaghan Latella / Hartford Courant/TNS)

The Rev. Thomas Conway, Waterbury native and heroic chaplain of the ill-fated USS Indianapolis, was awarded the Navy Cross posthumously on Friday for his selfless courage.

Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite presented the medal, the Navy’s second highest award, in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Local veterans and government leaders had been trying for years to obtain the honor for Conway, and Braithwaite apologized for the long delay in recognizing the chaplain’s extraordinary valor and devotion to duty.

“I am here to correct the record and right a wrong,” he said.

On July 30, 1945, the heavy cruiser Indianapolis, scarred from an earlier kamikaze attack that killed nine sailors, was headed to the Philippines after stopping at the island of Tinian to deliver parts for the atomic bomb, “Little Boy,” later to be dropped on Hiroshima. Lt. Conway, 37, was among the crew of 1,196.

At 12:15 a.m., a Japanese submarine loosed two Long Lance torpedoes into the ship’s starboard side. The Indianapolis sank in 12 minutes, dropping 18,000 feet to the bottom of the Philippine Sea.

Into the oil-slicked sea went about 880 men, Conway among them. Only 316 would survive the ordeal of shark attacks, dehydration and madness that finally ended with rescue on Aug. 2.

Braithwaite said the sea at night is often serene and beautiful, but he could not imagine the Indianapolis sailors’ terror in that dark hour. Conway, he said, became a beacon of hope for his shipmates.

The citation for the Navy Cross reads:

“Completely disregarding his own well-being, Chaplain Conway continually swam between the clusters of adrift sailors — many of whom were severely injured, delirious and dying — to provide them encouragement and comfort, pray with and for them and administer them sacraments. After three days of tireless exertion to aid his shipmates, he finally succumbed to exhaustion and his body was committed to the deep.

“His efforts were credited as a major reason 67 of the shipmates in his group were ultimately rescued,” the citation says.

Despite accounts about Conway’s bravery from survivors, U.S. Navy officials had said a senior officer who served with the chaplain had to sign a request for him to receive the Navy Cross. When the effort to honor Conway began, however, none of the survivors was an officer, according to articles in The Courant.

Speakers at the ceremony Friday cited the work of the Waterbury Veterans Memorial Committee and U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Christopher Murphy, who both attended. Ultimately, Blumenthal told the audience, it was Braithwaite who made the honor possible.

Blumenthal also said Conway’s story highlights the importance of chaplains in the military service. Doug Stanton, author of a book about the sinking of the Indianapolis, “In Harm’s Way,” wrote of the clergyman’s popularity among the crew.

“Fr. Conway… was relentless and fearless in his duty,” Stanton wrote. “Once, while saying Mass, battle stations had been called suddenly, and the astute Father shouted out, ‘Bless us all, boys! And give them hell!’ The boys loved him for this. He was a priest, it was true, but he was a priest with grit.”

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