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Remember Pearl Harbor: The Sacrifice of Fr. Al Schmitt

Fr. Aloysius Schmitt (Lieutenant, Junior Grade), known affectionately as “Father Al,” had just finished celebrating 7 a.m. Mass aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma (BB-37) at Pearl Harbor on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, when Japanese aircraft began their attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet. A member of the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps for only two years, the thirty-two-year-old priest had been assigned to minister to the spiritual needs of the sailors on the Oklahoma for less than year. Despite the short time on board, he had endeared himself to the men and was known for his approachability, sense of humor, and willingness to serve them.

Fr. Schmitt came from a hard-working German immigrant family that settled near Dubuque, Iowa, in the mid-nineteenth century. He was the tenth (and last) child of Henry and Mary Schmitt, and from the earliest age expressed a desire to become a priest. Young Al enjoyed school and athletics and spent his time working on the family farm. After high school, he enrolled at Columbia (now Loras) College in Dubuque, where he meditated on the school’s motto, Pro Deo et Patria (“For God and country”), which would serve as a guiding principle throughout his life.

Upon graduation, Al Schmitt answered the call of God he had heard at a young age and embarked on the path to the priesthood. He was sent to study theology at the North American College in Rome and was ordained a priest on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1935. Returning to the U.S., Fr. Schmitt served brief stints as parochial vicar at St. Boniface parish in New Vienna, Iowa—the cathedral parish in Cheyenne, Wyoming—and at St. Mary parish in Dubuque.

Although he enjoyed parish work, as the world moved closer to the devastation of the Second World War, Fr. Al recognized the need for priests to serve in the military. He requested permission from Archbishop Francis Beckman to join the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps and received his commission in July 1939. His initial assignments were to the Bureau of Navigation at the Department of the Navy in Washington, D.C. and at the Marine Barracks in Quantico, Virginia. After attending the Naval Training School for Chaplains at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, Fr. Al was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5) in January 1940. A few months later, he was transferred to the USS Oklahoma.

The USS Oklahoma (the “Okie”) was a Nevada-class battleship commissioned during World War I. An oil-burning (vice coal) ship, the Okie saw service in World War I protecting convoys from German U-boats through the Atlantic Ocean. The ship also participated in a rescue mission of U.S. citizens from Spain during that nation’s bloody civil war in the mid-1930s. The Okie was assigned to the U.S. Pacific Fleet in 1937 and based at Pearl Harbor.

Fr. Al relished his time in Hawaii and took advantage of “downtime” to explore the beautiful island of Oahu. The officers and men of the Okie held Fr. Al in high esteem. His love for souls was palpable. He took advantage of all opportunities to witness his love of Christ and his Church. Fr. Al did not stay in his stateroom but roamed the ship looking for ways to assist others in even the most mundane tasks. Many men wrote letters home about the smiling chaplain who interceded on their behalf, conducted general services for the non-Catholic sailors, and offered Mass for the Catholic population. By all accounts Fr. Schmitt enjoyed his duties aboard the Oklahoma, and the men were grateful for his presence.

As the year 1941 entered its final month, international tensions increased, and some believed the United States would be soon engulfed in war. Europe was already suffering under the yoke of Nazi tyranny, and imperial Japan was viewed with great suspicion. Despite the general concerns, few believed the United States would be attacked without provocation on a sunny, peaceful Sunday morning. On December 7, 1941, the Oklahoma was moored on “Battleship Row” and outboard from the USS Maryland when Japanese fighters, dive-bombers, and torpedo planes swooped in for attack shortly before 8 a.m.

Fr. Al was getting ready for the day after celebrating Mass when the first alarm for general quarters sounded. Soon after the first Japanese bombs fell on Ford Island, the Okie was hit in rapid succession by three torpedoes and within ten minutes of the first strike had rolled almost upside down. As a result, a large portion of the crew found themselves trapped. Fr. Al and several sailors attempted to escape the sinking ship through a porthole. The priest helped his fellow sailors squeeze through the small porthole, but he was unable to make it through, despite the efforts of the freed sailors on top of the ship.

When another group of sailors made their way into the compartment, which was quickly filling with water, Fr. Al ordered the escaped sailors to push him back through the porthole so that he could help the others escape. The men protested, knowing the chaplain would not be able to get out in time, but he insisted. Back in the compartment, Fr. Al helped other sailors escape before the rushing waters overwhelmed him.[1] He was the first Catholic chaplain to die in the Second World War.

The Department of the Navy recognized his lifesaving actions when he was posthumously awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal.[2]* Tributes to the memory of Fr. Schmitt were erected over the next several years in Iowa, Hawaii, and Rome.[3] The Navy commissioned the destroyer escort USS Schmitt (DE-676) in 1943 to honor his sacrifice. Fr. Schmitt died on the vigil of the sixth anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood.

Although his ministry was short-lived, the memory of Fr. Al and his sacrifice “for God and country” is not forgotten. As we remember today the seventy-forth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, let us recall the brave sacrifice of Fr. Al and all Catholic chaplains who have served our nation faithfully, and pray that many more priests may give of themselves as chaplains in our armed forces.

 

* Updated Dec. 2019 – The Navy upgraded Fr. Schmitt’s decoration to the Silver Star (the third highest medal for valor in combat) in October 2017. 


 

[1] Sources differ on the number of sailors assisted by Fr. Schmitt, but it is believed four to twelve men were saved by his efforts.

 

 

 

[2] In total, two Medals of Honor, one Navy Cross, and three Navy and Marine Corps Medals were awarded to the men of the Oklahoma for their actions on December 7, 1941. 

 

 

 

[3] Christ the King Chapel at Loras College was built in his memory.

 

 

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