DUBUQUE, Iowa (CNS) — There was nothing yet infamous about Dec. 7, 1941, when Fr. 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 Fr. Schmitt would lose his life while helping save the lives of 12 others, becoming the first U.S. chaplain to die during World War II.
Nearly 75 years after his death, the remains of Fr. Schmitt, a native of St. Lucas and graduate of Loras College, have been identified and are coming home to the Archdiocese of Dubuque.
Fr. Schmitt’s remains were to be flown from 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 an evening memorial Mass Oct. 5, a day after his alma mater shows “For God and Country,” a documentary on his life.
His remains will then be transported to Christ the King Chapel at Loras College in Dubuque, where a vigil will be held Oct. 7. A memorial Mass will be celebrated for Fr. Schmitt there the next morning, with Dubuque Archbishop Michael O. Jackels as the main celebrant and homilist.
Military rites will take place outside the chapel immediately following the conclusion of Mass. Interment will take place inside Christ the King.
Fr. Schmitt was “a son of Midwest soil and of the archdiocese,” said Fr. William Joensen, dean of spiritual life at Loras College.
Born in 1909, Fr. 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.
Fr. 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, Fr. Schmitt attended Loras College, then known as Columbia College, graduating in 1932. He studied for the priesthood in Rome and was ordained 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.
Chaplains in the military
Serving Catholics in the military on land, in the air and at sea
Fr. 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.
Dr. Steve Sloan never had the opportunity to meet his great-uncle Fr. 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 Fr. 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, Fr. Schmitt’s ship was hit by four torpedoes and capsized, trapping him and much of the rest of the crew below deck.
Fr. Schmitt and a number of other sailors who were in one of the ship’s flooding compartments managed to find a small porthole that provided a way out of the ship. In the frantic moments that followed, survivors reported that Fr. 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.
Identifying Pearl Harbor victims
The remains of the 429 sailors and Marines killed on the Oklahoma were found in the months and years following the attack; 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. Those efforts proved unsuccessful, and they were reburied in 1950 in 61 caskets at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.
In 2003, one of those caskets was dug up and five crew members 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.
Fr. 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 told The Witness, Dubuque’s archdiocesan newspaper, 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 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 Fr. 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,” said Sloan, who helped contact other relatives with the good news. “I knew I was witnessing a historical moment. I thought to myself, ‘This is the final chapter in Fr. Al’s journey. We’ll truly be bringing him home. We’ll finally be able to do something special for this incredible man.'”
Kruse is an editorial assistant at The Witness, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Dubuque.