Tuesday, December 7, 2021

(260) Heroism at Pearl Harbor: Navy Chaplain Fr. Aloysius Schmitt, First American Hero of World War II



Navy Chaplain Lt. Fr. Aloysius Schmitt.  The shell was chosen as one of Father Al's symbols rather than the Navy's anchor because it represents the Sacrament of Baptism.  The Navy presented a specially made 24 inch crucifix; the cross is of teakwood from the deck and the corpus of Christ is from the metal of his ship, the USS Oklahoma.  Also shown is the Purple Heart medal given to those who were wounded in action.

      It was a beautiful and quiet Sunday morning in Honolulu, Hawaii close to 80 years ago…..December 7, 1941.  Much of the United States Pacific Fleet was anchored there like sitting ducks.  However, a number of ships were out on maneuvers.  It was supposed to be a restful day for the sailors.  World War II had begun on September 1, 1939.  The German Army had conquered France along with most of Western Europe and was advancing in Russia. 

    Americans in general wanted no part of that war and the United States managed to stay out of it for over two years despite pressure by the British and others to fight on the allied side.  However, America did send supplies and pressured the Japanese with sanctions and demands to stop their advance in China, Korea, East Asia, and the Pacific.  Although negotiations between the United States and Japan made little or no progress, the country did not expect a war with the Japanese.    

      Radar detected planes approaching Hawaii, but the officer in charge assumed that they were American bombers.  In reality it was the first wave of 183 Japanese planes launched from six aircraft carriers.  A second wave followed with 171 planes.  The Japanese planned to drop bombs, launch torpedoes, and strafe ships in the port and surrounding military installations.  Assuming that war with the United States was inevitable, Japan made a preemptive strike on the Pacific fleet to acquire an initial advantage.  

     This surprise attack aroused a sleeping giant and unified the country as never before.  An all-out mobilization followed and the entire economy was geared to supporting the war effort.  I remember as a kid that even Superman and Bat Man were mobilized to fight in the comic books.  The 1970 movie, “Tora, Tora, Tora” gives a good glimpse of the attack.

      Lt. j.g. Aloysius H. Schmitt, a Catholic priest, was getting ready to say Mass on the battle ship, the USS Oklahoma for the 1,300 sailors on board.  The Church aspires to meet the spiritual needs of its people wherever they may be in the world.  They include the tens of thousands of American Catholic military on bases and in the rear of combat operations.  The Church serves the needs of our soldiers, sailors, and airmen through its Archdiocese for the Military Services currently under Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, J.C.D.  The Archdiocese is in great need for young priests to undergo military training and serve the troops as well as their families.

        A simple farm boy born in St. Lucas, Iowa in 1909, Fr. Aloysius graduated from the Catholic Loras College (www.loras.edu) in Dubuque, Iowa.  He then continued his studies for the priesthood in Rome and was ordained on December 8, 1935.  Father Schmitt was assigned to parishes in Dubuque and one in Cheyenne, Wyoming.  After four years, he received permission to become a military chaplain, and joined the United States Navy.

Just after Mass at 7:55 am on the Oklahoma, all hell broke loose as 354 Japanese planes flew over in two waves, armed with bombs and torpedoes.  The 583 foot (almost two football fields) battleship was hit by at least nine torpedoes and quickly listed and rolled over in 50 feet of water, trapping hundreds of men below the decks.  The USS Oklahoma capsized at 8:08 A.M., approximately 12 minutes after the first torpedo hit.

A scene of the attack from the movie, “Tora, Tora, Tora”

    The men of the USS Oklahoma found themselves in a bizarre world turned upside down, in pitch-black darkness, as compartments filled with water. Death came to 429 officers, sailors and Marines on the Oklahoma, marking the second greatest loss of life at Pearl Harbor.  In the USS Arizona it was even worse; 1,100 men died.  Among all the ships hit 2,403 Americans were killed, and 1,143 were wounded
Torpedoed and bombed by the Japanese, the battleship USS West Virginia (center) begins to sink after suffering heavy damage, while the USS Maryland, left, stayed afloat in Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii, December 7, 1941 during World War II. The capsized USS Oklahoma is on the right.

Rescue crews heard banging for help, cut into the hull by blow torch and made their way through a maze of darkened, flooded compartments to reach them, saving 32 men.  Others escaped by swimming underwater to find their way out.  Some trapped sailors tried to stem the rushing water with rags and even the board from a game.  A few managed to escape through portholes. The overturned hull of the USS Oklahoma after the attack on Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941

Disregarding his own life, Fr. Schmitt, chose to help his men through one of the small compartment 14 inch portholes.  He died for his men as a Persona Christi (another Christ) which indeed he was as are all priests when offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  He gave up his life so that others may live, as did his master, Jesus Christ for all of us.  It is believed that Fr. Schmitt helped save 12 sailors.  The men he saved swam through the attack to safety on the USS Maryland and saw their ship go down.                              

     For his heroism Chaplain Schmitt was posthumously (2017) awarded the Silver Star, the third highest decoration for valor in combat.  Previously he received the Purple Heart and the Navy and Marine Corps medal.  He was the first chaplain to have died in World War II.  St. Francis Xavier Chapel at Camp Lejeune, the marine training base, was dedicated in his memory in 1942.  A destroyer escort named USS Schmitt was commissioned in 1943 by the Navy in his honor and served the U.S. Navy until 1967, when it was transferred to Taiwan.  City Island in the Mississippi River near Dubuque was renamed Chaplain Schmitt Memorial Island.    

       Christ the King Chapel at Loras College was dedicated in his memory in 1947 and contains some of Fr. Schmitt's personal effects that had been recovered from the Oklahoma — including his chalice and prayer book — and other items that were donated to the school.  Present at the dedication were Cardinal Samuel Stritch of Chicago and Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet during World War II.                                              

      For years Fr. Schmitt was buried in a military cemetery in Honolulu among many other unidentified bodies.  However, in 2016 experts of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) identified his body, using DNA taken from the skull bone of a relative.  His final resting place is in Christ the King Chapel of Loras College.


Lieutenant Junior Grade Aloysius H. Schmitt, CHC, USN: Silver Star

Official Citation

An undated photo of Lieutenant Junior Grade Aloysius H. Schmitt, who was killed during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941 (Courtesy of Loras College/Released).

Lieutenant Junior Grade Aloysius Schmitt, a Catholic priest and assistant chaplain onboard USS Oklahoma (BB-37), willingly gave his life during the 7 December 1941 Pearl Harbor attack while assisting shipmates exiting from the overturned and partially submerged hull of the stricken battleship. Although Schmitt's communion chalice and Latin prayer book were salvaged from the Oklahoma soon after the attack, his remains were not definitively identified until September 2016. They were subsequently reinterred at Christ the King Chapel, on the grounds of Loras College, Schmitt's alma mater in Dubuque, Iowa. 

Originally, Chaplain Schmitt was posthumously awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, a non-combat award. In 1945, when the Navy reexamined its award policies, it was determined that he was eligible for the Silver Star. However, his award was not confirmed until 6 October 2017. Schmitt's Silver Star citation reads:


The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the

SILVER STAR MEDAL posthumously to




for service as set forth in the following


For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity on 7 December 1941 while serving as Chaplain aboard USS OKLAHOMA during the attack by Japanese forces on the U.S . Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. When OKLAHOMA capsized, Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Schmitt, along with other members of the crew, became trapped in a compartment where only a small porthole provided outlet for escape. With unselfish disregard for his own plight, he assisted his shipmates through the aperture. When they in turn were in the process of rescuing him, his body became tightly wedged in the narrow opening. Realizing that other men had come into the compartment seeking a way out, Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Schmitt insisted he be pushed back into the ship so the others might escape. Calmly urging them on with a pronouncement of his blessing, he remained behind while his shipmates crawled out to safety.  In so doing, he gallantly gave up his life for his country. Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Schmitt's magnanimous courage and self-sacrifice reflected great credit on him and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

For the President,

[R. V. Spencer] 

      Secretary of the Navy 

Original correspondence, including the official citation and award certificate, may be viewed here (1.4 MB PDF).  

Published: Wed Mar 14 15:02:47 EDT 2018


http://www.catholictradition.org/father-schmitt.htm - Fr. Aloysius H. Schmitt: For God and Country

www.washingtonpost.com/local/seventy-six-years-after-he-died-at-pearl-harbor-a-chaplain-will-get-a-combat-medal/2017/12/06/2bb8b15a-daa6-11e7-a841-2066faf731ef_story.html  - “Seventy-six years after he died at Pearl Harbor, a chaplain will get a combat medal”

https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/2016/12/02/aloysius-schmitt-god-and-country-navy-chaplain-lived-and-died-serving-others/92052910/ -  ‘For God and Country’: Navy chaplain lived and died serving others

https://military.wikia.org/wiki/Aloysius_Schmitt - Aloysius Schmitt

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aloysius_Schmitt - Aloysius Schmitt

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attack_on_Pearl_Harbor - Attack on Pearl Harbor 

https://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/heritage/awards/decorations/silver-star/silver-star-ltjg-schmitt.html - Official Citation Lieutenant Junior Grade Aloysius H. Schmitt, CHC, USN: Silver Star

https://www.crisismagazine.com/1992/catholic-chaplains-under-fire-pearl-harbor-a-half-century-later - Catholic Chaplains Under Fire: Pearl Harbor, a Half-century Later


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