USS Indianapolis Honoured
by Declan Brennan
Updated 2 August 2020
In a virtual ceremony on 24 July, the United States Congress, awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, its highest honour, to all living and dead crew members of the USS Indianapolis (CL/CA-35); which was sunk by Japanese torpedoes 75 years ago on 30 July 1945. The ceremony was broadcast on Thursday 30 July at 11 a.m. EDT.
A good portion of the crew were Irish American with the crew list dotted with surnames such as Sullivan, Kelly, Murphy, O’Donnell, Moran, Conway, Kennedy and many more. It is claimed the Captain, Charles Butler McVay was also of Irish descent.
The USS Indianapolis was a Portland-class heavy cruiser of the United States Navy. Launched in 1931, the vessel served as the flagship for the commander of Scouting Force 1 for eight years, then as flagship for Admiral Raymond Spruance in 1943 and 1944 while he commanded the Fifth Fleet in the Central Pacific during World War II. In July 1945 the ship was engaged on a secret mission, delivering enriched uranium to the island of Tinian; the silver-grey metal was badly needed for the ‘Little Boy’ atomic bomb that would later be dropped on Hiroshima. On 30 July, four days after completing her mission she was attacked by Japanese submarine I-58; two torpedoes sank her in 12 minutes. The secrecy of the mission and the suddenness of the attack meant few life rafts could be deployed and the disaster was compounded by failures at various operational levels. For five days in the Philippine Sea, the survivors – many suffering burns – were stranded in open ocean with few lifeboats, no food or water, and dehydration. Many died from shark attacks.
The ship became globally famous in the 1970’s when its story played a major role in one of the characters from the movie Jaws. In a famous scene during the movie Quint (Robert Shaw) sitting on the Orca drinking with Brody (Roy Scheider) and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) told them about his traumatic experience surviving the sinking of the Indianapolis, and bobbing in the sea for three days while his crew mates were picked off by sharks or drowned.
Of the 1,196-man crew, 880 escaped the sinking ship into the water, just 321 men were rescued and only 317 ultimately survived the ordeal. It was and remains the worst naval disaster in United States history.
On 19 August 2017, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen led a team which found the USS Indianapolis. The exact location remains classified because it is an official war grave at sea and is the property of the U.S. government.
The Gold Medal will be displayed at the Indiana War Memorial Museum in Indianapolis.
In this July 10, 1945, photo provided by U.S. Navy media content operations, USS Indianapolis (CA 35) is shown off the Mare Island Navy Yard, in northern California, after her final overhaul and repair of combat damage. (U.S. Navy via AP)
On this Day
Lt Thomas Conway U.S. Navy Chaplain
Updated on 2 August 2020
Fr. Conway was born on 5 April 1908 and died 2 August 1945. He was the oldest of three children born to Irish immigrants, Thomas F. Conway and Margaret Conway (Meade) in Waterbury, Connecticut.
Fr. Conway attended Lasalette Junior Seminary, in Hartford, Connecticut. In 1928, he enrolled at Niagara University (New York) and received an A.B. degree in 1930. On 8 June 1931, Conway enrolled in Our Lady of Angels Seminary, on the campus of Niagara University and on 26 May 1934, he was ordained to the priesthood for the diocese of Buffalo, New York, in St. Michael’s Cathedral, Springfield, Massachusetts.
On 17 September 1942, Fr. Conway enlisted in the U.S. Navy; subsequently commissioned a chaplain. He served at naval stations along the East Coast and in 1943 was transferred to the Pacific. For several months he served on the USS Medusa and on 25 August 1944, Fr. Conway was assigned to the USS Indianapolis.
The Chaplain was a popular member of the crew amongst all faiths and was kept busy with prayer and counselling services for the men. The Indianapolis was sent on a secret mission to deliver components of the atomic bomb ‘Little Boy’ to the island of Tinian. After discharging its top-secret cargo, the ship left for Guam and then Leyte in the Philippines. It was to join the American invasion fleet bound for Japan. It was struck by two torpedoes from Japanese Submarine I-58. Over four days later when rescued there was only 316 crewmen left. Sharks killed many of the men. Fr. Conway stayed in the water for three days before he died. Survivors have credited Fr. Conway with directly saving 67 men’s lives.
One survivor Frank J. Centazzo wrote: ‘Father Conway was in every way a messenger of our Lord. He loved his work no matter what the challenge. He was respected and loved by all his shipmates. I was in the group with Father Conway. … I saw him go from one small group to another. Getting the shipmates to join in prayer and asking them not to give up hope of being rescued. He kept working until he was exhausted. I remember on the third day late in the afternoon when he approached me and Paul McGiness. He was thrashing the water and Paul and I held him so he could rest a few hours. Later, he managed to get away from us and we never saw him again. Father Conway was successful in his mission to provide spiritual strength to all of us. He made us believe that we would be rescued. He gave us hope and the will to endure. His work was exhausting, he finally succumbed in the evening of the third day. He will be remembered by all of the survivors for all of his work while on board the ‘Indy’ and especially three days in the ocean.’
Fr. M. Thomas Conway was the last chaplain to die in combat in World War II. He was awarded the Purple Heart posthumously. The city of Buffalo, New York was, and remains the location of veteran and citizen attempts to preserve the memory of the heroic, compassionate and selfless ministry of Fr. Conway. A park was named in his honour in the city.
There is also a campaign by a veteran’s group in Waterbury with the support of some U.S. Senators to have Fr. Conway awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism in saving so many of his crewmates in the water.
You can read a detailed account of this amazing Irish American’s life in Bill Milhomme’s blog post here.