Lieutenant Thomas Conway, a Navy chaplain, was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for his actions during the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in the last days of World War 2.
On July 30, 1945, Lt. Conway was a Catholic priest assigned to the USS Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser, that was sailing from Guam to Okinawa in preparation for the invasion of Japan.
A few days prior, the USS Indianapolis had completed a highly secretive mission. The cruiser had delivered the “Little Boy,” one of the two atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan, to Tinian.
As the USS Indianapolis was cruising toward its destination, the Japanese submarine I-58 spotted the American warship and engaged it. Two torpedoes struck the American vessel, one near midship on the starboard side and close to the fuel storage and a powder magazine.
The USS Indianapolis sunk in just 12 minutes.
Out of its 1,200 plus strong crew, 300 went down with the ship. That left about 800 sailors in the shark-infested waters of the Philippines. Only 316 would make it alive.
In the next five days, the shipwrecked sailors fought against sharks, hypothermia, and desperation. During their ordeal, Lt. Conway was an ever-present figure who encouraged, provided sacrament, and comforted his fellow shipmates. But the effort left Lt. Conway weakened, and on the third day of the ordeal he died of exhaustion. He was credited with majorly contributing to the rescue of 67 men.
“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 in a press release. “My mother taught me that it’s never too late to say you’re 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. Our Sailors and Marines live those core values every day, and they carry with them the spirit of this great Sailor, officer, and pastor.”
Lt. Conway enlisted in the Navy in 1942 as a chaplain. He served in several naval stations in the East Coast before getting transferred to the Pacific Fleet and the USS Medusa, a repair ship. In 1944, he was reassigned to the USS Indianapolis.
“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 added. “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.”
The USS Indianapolis had served from Pearl Harbor all the way till the last days of the war, earning ten battle stars and frequently serving as the flagship of the 5th Fleet.
The Navy Cross is the second-highest award for valor in combat and second only to the Medal of Honor.