WATERBURY, Conn. (WTNH) — Downtown Waterbury near the Waterbury Green was a sea of red, white, and blue Friday afternoon. A VIP was on his way to The Brass City and the city rolled out the welcome matt for the Secretary of the United States Navy, Kenneth J. Braithewaite.
“It’s wonderful to be in Waterbury,” he told Mayor Neil O’Leary upon his arrival.
News 8 was the only Connecticut TV news team there with the secretary as soon as he got out of his car. We asked him how it felt to be here specifically to honor a native Waterburian who gave his life in World War II and who many still revere to this day.
Secretary Braithwaite’s answer may surprise some.
“It means a lot to different people,” he said. “For me, personally it means to come to right a wrong. That for 75 years, the oversight the US Navy had in not recognizing Father Conway was wrong. I’ve come to right a wrong.”
Father Conway is Father Thomas Conway. He was a Navy lieutenant and served as chaplain aboard the USS Indianapolis — a ship bombed by the Japanese in 1945 during World War II in the Philippine Sea. It sank. The incident remains the deadliest naval attack in history.
“In the darkness, in the chaos, amongst the screams, and the explosion, 1,200 sailors, 300 killed,” said Sec. Braithwaite.
All of them in shark-infested waters. Father Conway spent several days swimming to those critically-injured. He encouraged them to hang on and live and administered last rites to those who were too hurt.
He’s credited with saving nearly 70 servicemembers himself. One of their descendants telling News 8:
“Father Conway was my personal hero,” he said. “He was an amazing man who gave his life for all those boys in the water and he did that at his own expense and he became delirious and he died of exhaustion.”
“Father Conway died in my father’s arms,” said Libby Ostrofsky, who came from out of state to see the Navy secretary honor Father Conway with The Navy Cross. Her father was a medical officer on the USS Indianapolis and says he saw first-hand Father Conway’s heroism.
“He was a friend and the hardest part was saying goodbye, letting him go,” she said. “He had to take him out of the life jacket and let him drift away.”
Many in the Waterbury community would not let Father Conway’s efforts fade away. Mayor Neil O’Leary and members of the Waterbury Veterans Memorial Committee lobbied the Navy for years to recognize Father Conway.
They won that battle with this visit Friday, Jan. 8, 2021.
“The Navy is here, I am here to say that we are sorry,” said Sec. Braithwaite. “We are sorry for not recognizing the heroism, the dedication, and the valor of one of our own.”
“It’s a historic day for the City of Waterbury,” said Mayor O’Leary.