Priest sacrificed his life to save others in Pearl Harbor attack
By Jill Kruse
Witness Editorial Assistant
DUBUQUE — There was nothing yet infamous about Dec. 7, 1941, when Father Aloysius Schmitt woke up aboard the battleship the USS Oklahoma to celebrate Mass that Sunday morning at Pearl Harbor.
But just minutes after the liturgy ended, a surprise Japanese attack was underway, and Father Schmitt would lose his life while helping save the lives of 12 others, becoming the first U.S. chaplain to die during WWII.
Nearly 75 years after his death, the remains of Father Schmitt, a native of St. Lucas and graduate of Loras College, have been identified and are coming home to the Archdiocese of Dubuque.
Father Schmitt’s remains are currently in Hawaii and will be flown to Iowa at the beginning of October. His flag-draped casket will arrive at his home parish, St. Luke’s at St. Lucas, for a Memorial Mass on Wednesday, Oct. 5, at 6:30 p.m. A reception will follow immediately after.
His remains will then be transported to Christ the King Chapel at Loras College in Dubuque, where a vigil will be held on Friday, Oct. 7, from 3-8 p.m.
A Memorial Mass will be celebrated for Father Schmitt the next morning, Saturday, Oct. 8, at 10 a.m., also at Christ the King Chapel, with Archbishop Michael Jackels as the main celebrant and homilist. Seating will be limited for the Mass, but college officials have said events that morning will be live streamed and will be able to be viewed from across campus at the ACC Ballroom.
Military rites will take place outside the chapel immediately following the conclusion of Mass. Interment will take place inside Christ the King.
Deep Roots in the Archdiocese
Father Schmitt was “a son of Midwest soil and of the archdiocese,” said Father William Joensen, dean of spiritual life at Loras College.
Born in 1909, Father Schmitt was the youngest of Henry and Mary Schmitt’s 10 children. He grew up on the family farm near St. Lucas, where he enjoyed outdoor activities like baseball, swimming, and ice skating, as well as spending time with his much beloved dog, Biff.
Father Schmitt was an active member of St. Luke Parish and attended the local Catholic school, where he arrived each morning after traveling four miles by horse.
As a young adult, Father Schmitt attended Loras College, then known as Columbia College, graduating in 1932. He studied for the priesthood in Rome and was ordained on Dec. 8, 1935. He served as a parish priest at both St. Boniface in New Vienna and St. Mary in Dubuque, as well as at a parish in the state of Wyoming.
Father Schmitt requested, and received, permission from Archbishop Francis Beckman, then archbishop of Dubuque, to become a U.S. Navy chaplain. In 1940, he was assigned to the USS Oklahoma.
Sacrifice of a Beloved Chaplain
Dr. Steve Sloan never had the opportunity to meet his great-uncle Father Schmitt, but he’s learned a lot about him thanks to older relatives who have shared stories and from veterans who also served on the Oklahoma.
“He was a gentle, soft-spoken man, but he had a great, witty sense of humor that drew people to him,” Sloan said of Father Schmitt. “By all accounts, he was very well respected by the sailors of his ship, both Catholic and non-Catholic alike.”
On the fateful day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Father Schmitt’s ship was hit by four torpedoes and capsized, trapping him and much of the rest of the crew below deck.
Father Schmitt and a number of other sailors who were in one of the ship’s flooding compartments managed to find a small porthole which provided a way out of the ship. In the frantic moments that followed, survivors reported that Father Schmitt scarified his own chance of escape and instead helped 12 men through the porthole to safety.
He received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and the Purple Heart for his brave actions that day. In 1943, the U.S. Navy named a destroyer escort in his honor – the USS Schmitt.
Bringing Home a Hero
The remains of the 429 sailors and Marines killed on the Oklahoma were found in the months and years following the attack, but the effects of decomposition allowed only a small number to be positively identified.
In 1944, the bodies of the unidentified were buried as “unknowns” in two Hawaiian cemeteries. They were exhumed three years later in an attempt to identify them using dental records, but when those efforts proved unsuccessful, they were reburied in 1950 in 61 caskets at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.
More than half a century later, in 2003, one of those caskets was dug up and five crewmembers were identified thanks to modern DNA testing. Four years later, another casket was disinterred and an additional member of the Oklahoma’s crew identified.
In light of those findings, the U.S. Department of Defense announced in 2015 that the remaining caskets would be exhumed and efforts made to identify the rest of the 388 unknowns of the Oklahoma’s crew and return them to their families.
The last of the caskets were dug up in November 2015. The painstaking process of identifying the remains has proven to be challenging but ultimately successful. Military officials began releasing the names of newly identified crewmen this January and have continued to do so throughout 2016. They hope to complete the project by the end of this year.
Father Schmitt’s relatives had been waiting anxiously to learn if his remains would be among those identified. Military officials first contacted the family three years ago when seeking a relative who could provide a DNA sample to aid in the identification of the chaplain’s remains.
Sloan said that the family received their first piece of good news this June when the military contacted them to say they had received a positive DNA match. It wasn’t confirmation they had identified the remains, but it was a hopeful sign.
“I got goose bumps,” Sloan said of the day he received the call. “I remember where I was standing when they told me the news.”
The family’s long-anticipated confirmation came on the morning of Sept. 5, when military representatives made the trip to Milford, Iowa, to knock on the door of Art and Dorothy Schultz. As Father Schmitt’s oldest living niece, Dorothy is considered the “primary next of kin,” the individual with whom the military shares official notification of the positive identification of remains.
Sloan and his wife, Julie, were present for the notification in Milford. “It really hit home for me during that family visit,” Sloan said. “I knew I was witnessing a historical moment. I thought to myself, ‘this is the final chapter in Father Al’s journey. We’ll truly be bringing him home. We’ll finally be able to do something special for this incredible man.’”
The Schultzs asked Sloan to help them contact other relatives and share the good news of the identification of Father Schmitt’s remains. As he drove back to Dubuque that day, Sloan said he called other members of the family. “One gentleman broke down and cried when I told him,” Sloan recalled. “He said, ‘I have waited my whole life to hear this.’ I think this brings a sense of closure to many members of the family.”
Del Schmitt, 82, of West Union, a nephew to the late Father Schmitt, is one relative who says he now feels that sense of closure.
Schmitt was only 7 years old when his uncle Father Al was killed at Pearl Harbor. He has memories of his uncle visiting his house before he joined the military. He also remembers hearing an announcement made at his school – months after the attack – confirming the chaplain’s death.
Schmitt said he has always been proud of his uncle and now has “a lot of satisfaction knowing so much effort was put in to bringing him back.”
He and his wife, Shirley, members of St. Luke Parish in St. Lucas, plan to be at the church with several others of Father Schmitt’s nieces and nephews and their spouses for the Memorial Mass in October. “We definitely want to be there,” he said.
His Continuing Legacy
In December 1942, a year after Father Schmitt’s death, Archbishop Beckman released a statement in which he remembered Father Schmitt on the first anniversary of his death, saying the chaplain had lived – and had died – as a testimony to the motto of Loras College – “Pro Deo et Patria,” for God and country.
Five years later, when Loras College completed the construction of its new chapel, Christ the King, it was dedicated as a memorial to Father Schmitt. Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet during WWII, and Samuel Cardinal Stritch, archbishop of Chicago, were present for the dedication.
A display was later built in the back of the chapel that contains Father Schmitt’s chalice and several other personal items recovered from the wreckage of Pearl Harbor – including a prayer book that the chaplain had marked for Dec. 8 prayers.
Father Schmitt has always been an important part of the Loras legacy, and Father Joensen believes the funeral and interment of Chaplain Schmitt at the college will help students more fully appreciate the spirit of the Loras motto and may make it more applicable to their own lives.
“Our social media connected students are not unlike others of their generation who tend to live in the moment and whose attention is measured in nanoseconds,” Father Joensen said. “Yet they also already embody the college’s motto in so many forms of service, scholarship and sacrifice. I think this event offers a wonderful teachable moment for them and for other persons old and young, and will amplify the dispositions that are already alive in our young people.”
Sloan agrees. “This is an opportunity for younger people to observe and be moved by his story,” he said. “I could see young people sitting in the chapel at Loras College who might be inspired by his service to do great things as well.”
“Father Al is by no means done yet,” he added. “He remains an inspiration.”
Chaplain Schmitt in his military uniform. (Photo courtesy Loras College)