Unlike the hundreds of other men aboard the U.S.S. Oklahoma as the clock neared 8 a.m. on Sunday, December 7, 1941, Lt. (j.g.) Aloysius Schmitt might reasonably have thought the bulk of his work for the day was already done.
The Catholic chaplain had said Mass at 7 a.m. and was hearing confessions aboard the battleship he had called home since early 1940. The Oklahoma was moored at berth F-5 at Pearl Harbor, outboard of the U.S.S. Maryland on the south side of Ford Island — Battleship Row, they called it.
At about 7:55 a.m., Japanese dive bombers zoomed low over the harbor, first targeting American planes on the ground at Ford Island and elsewhere in the vicinity. Minutes later, the first torpedoes were in the water, and Battleship Row was under attack.
The incident was over within two hours, the Japanese planes on their way back to rendezvous with their carriers at sea. They left behind a horrorscape of destruction centered on two battleships, the Arizona and Oklahoma. Of the 2,403 people killed that morning — the first official American combat deaths of World War II — just over two-thirds were aboard those two ships.
Among them was the man known to his shipmates as “Father Al,” who spent his final minutes ensuring others had a chance to escape the Oklahoma as he put his own fate in the hands of God.
Aloysius Herman Schmitt was born December 3, 1909, the youngest of 10 children of Henry and Mary Schmitt. They lived on a farm near tiny St. Lucas, Iowa, in the northeastern part of the state — closer to the borders of Minnesota and Wisconsin than to Des Moines.
The family attended St. Luke Catholic Church, and once Al reached school age, he would ride his horse to and from the local Catholic school — four miles each way, according to a recent story in the Archdiocese of Dubuque’s publication The Witness.
Descriptions of a childhood spent working the farm and playing outdoors can sound idyllic, but Schmitt experienced more than his share of loss during his formative years. His oldest sister, Helen, died when he was just 9 years old, in 1919, and between 1926 and 1932 he would also lose his brother Bernard and both parents.
Al attended Campion Jesuit High School in Wisconsin, then graduated from Loras College in Dubuque (then called Columbia College) in 1932 and embarked upon a career in the priesthood. He studied at the North American College seminary in Rome and was ordained on December 8, 1935 by Cardinal Marchetti-Selvaggiani.
Schmitt sailed home from Europe in the spring of 1936, arriving in New York aboard the S.S. Washington on May 1. He returned to the Midwest and set to work in the ministry, serving as a parish priest in New Vienna, Iowa; Cheyenne, Wyoming; and finally back in Dubuque. It was there that he asked Archbishop Francis Beckman for permission to join the Navy’s Chaplain Corps, ultimately receiving his commission on July 1, 1939.
According to National Park Service newsletter article from 1991, he was initially assigned to the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Yorktown on January 25, 1940, before being transferred to the Oklahoma on March 16.
Nearly eight months later, four days after his 32nd birthday, Schmitt and the rest of the Oklahoma‘s crew were stunned to see bombs fall on the airfield at Ford Island, with the planes that dropped them bearing two unmistakable red circles on the underside of their wings.
About 7:57 a.m., recalled Cmdr. Jesse L. Kenworthy Jr., the crew was ordered to man the ship’s antiaircraft batteries. Kenworthy was the ranking officer on the Oklahoma at the time of the attack; the ship’s commander, Capt. Howard D. Bode, had gone next door to the Maryland about a half hour earlier.
As the air-raid sirens sounded, Kenworthy ordered the crew to battle stations and rushed up the ladder on the starboard side of the upper deck toward the conning tower. “As I reached the upper deck, I felt a heavy shock and heard a loud explosion and the ship immediately began to list to port,” he wrote days later in an after-action report. “Oil and water descended on deck and by the time I had reached the boat deck, the shock of two more explosions on the port side was felt.”
The Oklahoma got no respite after those three torpedo impacts; a fourth soon slammed into the battlewagon’s port side, and Kenworthy estimated she was already listing 25 to 35 degrees. “It was now obvious that the ship was going to continue to roll over. … Men were beginning to come up from below through hatches and gun ports and from them it was learned that the ship was filling with water in the spaces below.”
Once it became clear the Oklahoma was under attack, it is believed Schmitt went to the safe in his stateroom and removed a bottle or flask of holy oils to be used to administer last rites. He then joined everyone else belowdecks in trying to find a way out of the faltering, 27,500-ton ship.
Accounts of exactly what happened next vary, but the gist is essentially the same. Schmitt and a small group of men found a porthole to the outside. It was a tight squeeze, but men wriggled through it one by one. When Schmitt’s turn came, he got stuck halfway through. Some have theorized it was because of the holy oils he was carrying.
Electrician’s Mate 1st Class W.A. Perrett later described the scene in a letter to Capt. William A. McGuire, the Navy fleet chaplain at Pearl Harbor (who is credited with coining the phrase “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition” that day). McGuire quotes the letter in his 1943 book “The Captain Wears a Cross”:
The ship was listing from 20 to 25 degrees when I was pulled through the port. At that moment, I heard someone yelling. Looking around, I recognized Chaplain Schmitt. He said, ‘Boys, I’m having a tough time getting through.’ So we all got together and tried to pull him out. But no luck.
His next words really took the three of us by surprise, and will linger with us for some time. ‘Men, you are endangering your lives, and I’m keeping others from getting through.’ But we tried again to pull him out. One of the men said, ‘Chaplain, if you go back in there, you’ll never come out.’
Then Father Schmitt said, ‘Please let go of me, and may God bless you all.’ He disappeared back in the ship knowing well he would never come out of it alive. The ship was slowly turning over. Four or five men came out of that port while I was there helping. Soon we had to leave. It was getting too hot to stick around.
We left the Oklahoma by jumping into the sea and swam to the U.S.S. Maryland where we were hoisted aboard. A few minutes later, the ship turned turtle and with her went a brave and courageous man, a man who gave his life in keeping with the best traditions of the U.S. Navy.
One other account, perhaps leaning toward the apocryphal, appeared in the Pittsburgh Press in December 1943. In that version, Schmitt whispers “God save you” to each man who passes by him on the way out. When the last man asks, “Who’s going to save you?” Schmitt smiles and responds, “The same person who is saving you.”
Schmitt was posthumously awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, but that was only the beginning. As the story of his selflessness spread, his memory inspired any number of tributes.
In May 1943, the Navy launched a newly built destroyer escort at Quincy, Massachusetts, and christened her the U.S.S. Schmitt. She served the Navy until being decommissioned in 1949 and remained afloat until being scrapped in 1976.
In 1945, officers and crew of the Schmitt pooled their money and donated $150 to Loras College, which was in the midst of a fundraising drive to build a new chapel in Schmitt’s honor. The Christ the King Chapel eventually was dedicated in October 1947, with Samuel Cardinal Strich and Adm. Chester Nimitz receiving honorary degrees to mark the occasion.
In 1968, Dubuque named Schmitt Harbor on City Island along the Mississippi River after the fallen chaplain. Twelve years later, the island — which had been used as a landfill but was converted to park space — was renamed Chaplain Schmitt Island. It is now also home to a casino.
Back in Hawaii, remnants of Schmitt’s presence were found as the Navy began salvage work on the Oklahoma. Among the artifacts discovered in the rusting hulk when it was finally righted in 1943 were Schmitt’s chalice and prayer book. But his body was never positively identified, so he officially remained among the hundreds listed as “missing” who perished that day.
As work on the ship continued, Navy personnel recovered remains of the crew that could not be identified and eventually buried them at two cemeteries in Hawaii. In 1947, the American Graves Registration Service disinterred the remains and sent them to a laboratory for testing, resulting in the identification of 35 men from the Oklahoma. The rest were reburied at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific — better known as the Punchbowl — in Honolulu.
Due to advances in technology, specifically improved DNA testing, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency began exhuming those remains in June 2015 in hopes of identifying more of the dead. According to a story in The Washington Post, a skull bone from one of the “unknowns” was found to have DNA matching a relative of Schmitt’s.
On October 3, 2016, Schmitt’s remains were placed in a casket in Hawaii and driven to the airport in Honolulu, where a military honor guard loaded it onto a plane. Draped in an American flag, the casket flew to Atlanta, then Chicago’s O’Hare aiport, where it was loaded into a hearse. With that, Schmitt returned home to St. Lucas, where on October 5, a memorial Mass was held at St. Luke’s, the church of his childhood.
Three days later, Mass was celebrated at Christ the King Chapel in Dubuque and Schmitt’s remains were finally laid to rest alongside the altar. The Loras College motto appears prominently in the chapel: “Pro deo et patria.”
For God and country.