It was Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, and Lt. j.g. Aloysius Schmitt, had just finished saying Sunday Mass for the men of the USS Oklahoma. He was below decks when eight Japanese torpedoes struck the ship. The damage was so severe that Father Schmitt and the sailors and Marines who were with him were trapped — the only way out was through a small porthole.
As the Oklahoma began to list (soon it would capsize), and the compartment filled with water, Father Schmitt helped about dozen men escape through the porthole. He couldn’t get out himself, he was too big to squeeze through the small opening. The chaplain was among the 429 who died aboard the Oklahoma, a casualty rate second only the USS Arizona, where approximately 1,100 servicemen lost their lives.
It took time to recover all the bodies, and by the time they were found, most were so decomposed as to be unrecognizable. The recovery crew did find Father Schmitt’s chalice and his prayer book; the Schmitt family donated the relics to Loras College in Iowa, Father Schmitt’s alma mater.
Aloysius Schmitt was the youngest of ten children who grew up on their family farm outside Dubuque. He was ordained a priest in 1935, and after four years of parish work, he received permission from his religious superiors to become a Navy chaplain. Father Schmitt was the first American chaplain killed during World War II.
After his death, the U.S. government awarded Father Schmitt the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, and in 1943 commissioned a destroyer escort, the USS Schmitt. After the war, Loras College erected a new chapel, which the administration named Christ the King and dedicated to the memory of the school’s most revered alumnus. When the chapel was consecrated in 1947, Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz was in the congregation.
The remains of the men of the Oklahoma who could not be identified were buried as Unknowns in Hawaii. Beginning in 1947, there were several attempts to identify the dead and return them to their families. Thanks to DNA testing, virtually all of the casualties have been identified, among them Father Schmitt.
He is coming home this month. There will be memorial Mass for him at his home parish, St. Luke’s in St. Lucas, Iowa, followed by military honors and a second memorial Mass at the Chapel of Christ the King at Loras College, where Father Schmitt’s remains will be laid to rest.
Dr. Steve Sloan, a great-nephew of Father Schmitt, helped spread the word among the family. “This is the final chapter in Father Al’s journey,” he said to a reporter for the Witness, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Dubuque. “We’ll truly be bringing him home. We’ll finally be able to do something special for this incredible man.”