WATERBURY, Conn. – The story of the USS Indianapolis is well known, thanks in large part to the 1975 movie “Jaws.” What’s not as well known are the heroic efforts of a US Navy chaplain from Waterbury, one of 880 men to die in what would be the greatest loss of life at sea during World War II.
Nearly 1,200 men were aboard the heavy cruiser on July 30 1945 in the South Pacific when it was struck by Japanese torpedoes after returning from a secret mission to deliver parts of the first atomic bomb.
The ship sank in 12 minutes. Roughly 300 men went down with it. The rest – about 900 – were left to float in shark-infested waters for 3-1/2 days.
The Rev. Thomas M. Conway, Chaplain of the USS Indianapolis and a Waterbury native, was among the immediate survivors. He spent the next three days gathering men in groups, then swimming from one to the next, urging survivors not to give up.
He ministered to them, he prayed with them, he encouraged them and boosted their spirits – until dying on the morning of Aug. 2, 1945, just hours before help arrived.
Seven decades after his sacrifice, the City of Waterbury, Waterbury Veterans Memorial Committee, will remember the service of Father Conway, a Catholic Priest, born and raised at 224 Cooke Street, Waterbury.
The committee has created a bronze sculpture of Father Conway giving aid and comfort to a shipmate as the Pacific Ocean surrounds them. The committee will dedicate this sculpture at a ceremony Sunday Aug. 2 at 11 a.m. at Waterbury City Hall, 235 Grand Street.
“We know that 67 men survived in the group that he helped supervise. Only God knows how many souls he saved,” said Bob Dorr, Secretary of the Committee.
The USS Indianapolis (CA-35) had completed a secret mission to deliver the atomic bomb to Tinian Island and was on its way to Leyte, in the Philippines, when it was sunk by a Japanese submarine. The ship had 1,197 men aboard when sunk. Only 317 survived.
“Two Waterburians were lost on the USS Indianapolis. In addition to Father Conway, S2c Frederick E. Harrison was picked up but died two days after being rescued.” said Jack Shea, Committee member.
The families and relatives of Father Conway and S2c Harrison are expected to attend the unveiling of the Father Conway Memorial on Aug. 2nd. The event will be moved inside Waterbury City Hall if it rains.
Every book written and every story published since the loss of the USS Indianapolis tells the story of the heroic Chaplain from Waterbury. He was the last chaplain to die in combat in WWII.
Because of the top-secret nature of the mission, Navy command were unaware of the ship’s sinking until a passing plane spotted men in the water 3-1/2 days later.