A statue in honor of a Waterbury-born priest who was the last Catholic chaplain to die in combat in World War II was unveiled Aug. 2 at Waterbury City Hall.
Seventy years ago on July 31, the Japanese torpedoed the U.S.S. Indianapolis, spilling 900 of its 1,197 crew members into the shark-infested Pacific Ocean, eventually costing the lives of all but 317 survivors.
The ship sank in 12 minutes; but one 37-year-old chaplain, Lt. Father Thomas Michael Conway, a native of Waterbury, resolutely continued to minister to his shipmates in the water.
For three days, he swam back and forth to men who were clinging to debris and cargo nets in a courageous effort to pray, sing and bolster spirits before perishing of exhaustion, dehydration and exposure just hours before rescuers spotted the men in the water.
He was the last Catholic chaplain to die in action during World War II.
On Aug. 2 at City Hall, in a moving observance of the sinking of the Indianapolis and the death of the heroic priest, the Waterbury Veterans Memorial Committee dedicated a bronze statue depicting Father Conway comforting a shipmate with one arm and holding up a fistful of dog tags in the other.
They also paid tribute to another Waterbury man, Navy Seaman Second Class Frederick E. Harrison, who lost his life two days after being rescued.
After a month on display, the statue will be moved to its final home outside the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, where Father Conway was baptized.
Appropriately unveiling the statue was Msgr. John J. Bevins, retired pastor of the basilica, who first brought the story of Father Conway to the attention of Bob Dorr and Jack Shea of the Waterbury Memorial Committee after reading an account of his life in a newspaper.
“There is no doubt that he was a heroic individual … that he continued his service to his nation long after his duty station had been sunk,” said Mr. Dorr.
Thanks to Msgr. Bevins’s persistence, the committee petitioned the U.S. Navy to posthumously award the Navy Cross to Father Conway – a request that was denied over a technicality that no eyewitness account could be provided by a surviving senior officer.
He “gave his life so that others may live,” said Msgr. Bevins, himself a 23-year Navy chaplain veteran, who blessed the statue and gave the invocation.
“When you read Father Conway’s life … and you see how he took care of his men when they were alive, how he was solicitous for their families, how he would use his leave time to go and visit with them, how he always made sure to send a letter to the family of somebody who was seriously hurt or had died in action, the way he took care of the men when they were on board the ship, the way he took care of them when they were ashore, it is not surprising how he died,” he said in an emotional tribute.
“That’s the way he lived,” said Msgr. Bevins. “He was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. His whole life centered on taking care of his people, not only Catholics but everybody on board the ship.
“The stories that are told about him and how he cared for the people really make you proud that you knew somebody like this from Cracker Hill in Waterbury,” he said.
In the parish bulletin, Father Christopher Ford, pastor of the basilica wrote, “Only God knows how many souls he saved. Given what I have learned about Fr. Conway, we might have another cause for Sainthood to pursue, in addition to Venerable Michael McGivney,” the Waterbury-raised founder of the Knights of Columbus, who is being considered for canonization.
The story of Father Conway’s selfless heroism and love for his shipmates was captured in the book, In Harm’s Way, by Doug Stanton.
“Father Conway symbolizes why that generation is called ‘the greatest generation,’” said retired Navy Capt. Richard Scappini, one of the speakers. “His service to his country … his fellow man, cannot be duplicated. He gave the ultimate sacrifice.”
Significantly, the U.S.S. Indianapolis was hit on its way back from making a top-secret trip to Tinian Island, where it had delivered enriched uranium and parts to construct the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima the next week.
To bring Father Conway’s story to attention of church authorities, Msgr. Bevins said that he and the memorial committee had informed Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien, during his term as Archbishop for the Military Services, as well as Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, who currently holds that see, and the bishop of Buffalo, where Father Conway studied for the priesthood.
Msgr. Bevins said that then-Archbishop O’Brien told him that he was well aware of Father Conway because many of the surviving men who ended up on Peleliu Island told numerous stories about the young priest to the Catholic chaplain there, who sent the accounts to the military archdiocese.
He noted that because Father Conway was buried at sea, one concern about elevating his cause for sainthood may be that there are no remains of his body. However, Msgr. Bevins offered a possible precedent, observing that while no one has begun the process for canonization, the Diocese of Kansas City is promoting Father Emil J. Kapaun, a military chaplain who died as a prisoner of war in the Korean War and was buried in a mass grave.
In his remarks, Mr. Dorr provided a description of the memorial written by the sculptor, Andrew Chernak:
“The Father Conway memorial is a 360 degree circle of water, which is what all the survivors in the sea would see no matter which way they looked. Father Conway is providing aid and comfort to crewmen while holding aloft his hand in prayer … his rosary and the dog tags of the lost are in his hand. With his eyes toward heaven, he will forever reach out to save the lost and dying souls of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. It is these thoughts that gave me the vision to create this sculpture.”
Mr. Dorr added his own thoughts about the heroic priest’s last moments, when he stated:
“In the swirling sea of the dead, the wounded and the scared, Father Conway tended to his ravaged flock. Aware of the weakening exhaustion and death that dehydration begins, I’m sure Father Conway thought of John 15:13, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ True to those words, Father Conway did just that.”