No medal possible for World War II priest from Connecticut

WATERBURY, Conn. (AP) — A Waterbury group was unable to get a posthumous medal for city native Navy Chaplain Lt. Thomas Conway, who spent his last three days swimming in shark-infested waters comforting fellow crewmen who survived the July 1945 sinking of the USS Indianapolis.

The Waterbury Veterans Memorial Committee made that announcement after a memorial Mass Thursday in Waterbury’s landmark Immaculate Conception church on Conway’s 110th birthday.

Committee secretary Robert Dorr said insurmountable U.S. Navy rules make it impossible to get the Navy Cross for Conway, acclaimed a hero by Indianapolis survivors ever since the ship sunk in July 30, 1945.

“Father Conway is a hero, whether the medal is awarded or not,” Dorr said after the Mass, which drew about 100 people, a mix of parishioners, veterans and people who knew about Conway.

“Where’s all the veterans? They should be here,” Army Air Force veteran Frank Mirto of Waterbury said. “This man is a real hero. It’s a sin more people aren’t here.”

Conway, 37, died of exposure, two days before the 317 survivors were rescued. There were 1,196 men on the ship when the torpedoes hit and tore apart the ship. It sank in 12 minutes in the Philippine Sea.

In the 73 years since the ship sank, survivors have told the story of the ship’s priest. Detailed accounts say 67 sailors stayed alive five days in open ocean without food, water or shade mainly because of Conway’s encouragement, aid and kindness.

The Navy roadblock is an iron-clad requirement that a senior officer who served with Conway sign the request. Those men are long deceased, Dorr said. There are only 17 left of the 317 rescued in August 1945. None of the 17 were officers.

The Navy has never granted a waiver to that requirement — a fact Dorr said prompted the committee to decide to halt its latest attempt.

“Navy regulations are very clear about that,” Mass attendee Richard J. Scappini, a Waterbury attorney and retired Navy captain who served in the legal division, said. “Unfortunately, that makes it impossible for Father Conway to receive the honor he most clearly deserves.”

The ship was attacked near midnight July 30, 1945 on its way back from Tinian island to Leyte Gulf after a secret mission delivering atomic bomb components for “Little Boy,” the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. A distress signal went out but it was not answered. Naval command never realized the ship was overdue. So no search effort was ordered.

Some of the men pitched into the ocean had no life jackets. There were only a few rafts. Sharks gathered at dawn, hunting, attacking and killing as many as 150 men.

The 317 men plucked from the ocean on Aug. 5,1945 were salt poisoned, delirious, weak and starving. Two of them — one of them Frederick Harrison also of Waterbury — died shortly after rescue.

The loss is considered the nation’s worst naval disaster with 880 dead.. The scope of that tragedy was evident Thursday.

“Father Conway has always been one of my personal heroes,” Michael William Emery of Concord, Mass., said after the service. Emery, named after his uncle William Emery of New Canaan who died trapped in the wrecked ship that sank in 12 minutes, teared up thinking of the loss of his 19-year-old namesake whom he never met, Conway’s “selfless sacrifice” and the loss of 880 Indianapolis crew members.

“I choke up thinking about Father Conway swimming from man to man in the ocean, comforting them, praying with them, encouraging them,” Emery said. “He focused on others, not on himself, until he died.”

At a brief post-Mass ceremony outside by a monument on church grounds for Conway, Dorr gestured to the monument — a cenotaph or empty tomb monument with a plaque that details Conway’s sacrifice.

“This statute will be here for the next 100 years so people will always know about the hero priest,” Dorr said. He also read a statement U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy placed recently in the Congressional Record honoring the “life and legacy of a World War II hero: LT. Rev. Thomas M. Conway, born April 5, 1908, in Waterbury, Ct.”

The senator noted that “one surviving sailor said of Father Conway, ‘He was the most visible person keeping the men together, giving them hope and sacrificing himself to keep his fellow sailors united, calm, and alert.’ ”

“It helps to tell these stories,” another speaker, Diane Harrison Caggiano of Wolcott, daughter of an Indianapolis crew member said. “It’s important that people know.”

Her late father, Frederick Harrison of Waterbury, was mentioned during the Mass. His picture and medals were displayed behind the altar rail as were photographs and other items about Father Conway.

Harrison was rescued from the ocean but died two days later. His daughter was seven months old when he died. She is now in her 70s and a retired Episcopal deacon.

Caggiano, like Emery, belongs to the USS Indianapolis Survivors Association, a group open to survivors, rescuers and their families.

“The organization is like a big family. We all share a similar story,” she said. “There’s only a few crew members left. Now there’s ... children of the crew and rescuers to tell the story. It’s healing to talk about it with people who understand your loss.”




Information from: Hartford Courant,