WATERBURY, CT – Father Thomas Conway, CHC, LT, USN, a diocesan priest of Buffalo, NY, was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross on Friday in his hometown of Waterbury, CT. The Navy Cross is the second-highest military decoration in both the United States Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps. The medal is awarded to Sailors or Marines who distinguish themselves for extraordinary heroism in combat with an armed enemy force.
Father Conway received the award for his actions following the July 30, 1945 sinking of the USS Indianapolis (CA-35) on which he served as a Catholic chaplain. A Japanese submarine torpedoed the Portland class heavy cruiser shortly after midnight in the Philippine Sea, tossing hundreds who survived the initial explosion overboard.
For three days in shark-infested waters without food, drink or shade, Father Conway, 37, heroically swam back and forth between groups of survivors, offering comfort, prayers, baptism, last rites, and encouragement to keep the faith and not lose hope of eventual rescue. Help did finally come days later, but by then the priest hero was lost. According to detailed accounts, at least 67 Sailors among those rescued survived thanks to Chaplain Conway’s support, assistance, encouragement, and grace under brutal circumstances.
During Friday’s 2:00 p.m. award ceremony at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Waterbury, Monsignor John Blevins, a retired Navy chaplain and former pastor at the Basilica, received the medal on behalf of Father Conway, who was baptized there and graduated from its grammar school. Navy Secretary Kenneth J. Braithwaite said, “Father Conway wasn’t a young man, but he gave his all in his duty as he swam from group to group. Three and a half days in the water. Nothing to drink. Nothing to eat. And yet he went on.”
Father Conway stands among an elite group of Catholic priests who have received some of the U.S. Military’s highest decorations for their bravery in action. Since the Civil War, all five U.S. Military Chaplains who have received the nation’s top military honor, the Medal of Honor, were Catholic priests: Fathers Joseph O’Callahan, Emil Kapaun, Vincent Capodanno, Charles Watters, and Charles Liteky.
For many years the Navy held off awarding Father Conway the Navy Cross because none of the priest-hero’s senior officers were still living to endorse the award, as required by Navy Rules. In 2014, though, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), joined by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), introduced a Senate resolution presenting new evidence and documentation about Father Conway’s record of service in the Navy. Those efforts led eventually to the presentation on Friday.
His Excellency, the Most Reverend Timothy P. Broglio, J.C.D., Archbishop for the Military Services, USA, commented on the presentation of the Navy Cross to Father Conway: “This exemplary Navy Chaplain demonstrates on a grand scale what chaplains do every day. They put service and the needs of others before self. I am grateful for this belated recognition for Father Conway and chaplains everywhere can find encouragement in his heroism.”