Heroes of Pearl Harbor: Father Aloysius Schmitt

Pearl Harbor National Memorial

Daniel Martinez, Chief Historian at Pearl Harbor National Memorial

Aloysius Schmitt was born on December 4, 1909 in a small town of St. Lucas, Iowa. Even today, the town has only 138 residents. Henry and Mary Schmitt raised a large family of ten children. Growing up on a farm, Aloysius was a hard worker and a good student. He loved baseball, as a fan and as a player. He had a way with animals on the farm and his dog Biff was a constant companion. He and his brothers went to Catholic school in St. Lucas. Later in life he would study at Loras College. He graduated in 1932 with honors. It has been said that his desire to join the priesthood was something he thought about as a young man. In the early 1930’s he went to Italy to study in Rome. On December 8, 1935 he was ordained a Catholic priest. Later, he returned to the United States and became a parish priest in Dubuque, Iowa and Cheyenne, Wyoming.

As the tensions of war erupted in Europe, America began to prepare for a possible war in its future. Perhaps this is what prompted Father Aloysius Schmitt to ask Bishop Beckman permission to enter the US Navy’s chaplain corps in 1939. The following year he was assigned to the USS Oklahoma.

On December 7, 1941 Chaplain Schmitt had just completed the 7:00 am mass when explosions started to rock the harbor. Within minutes of that religious service, Japanese Naval Air struck the Pacific Fleet moorings at Pearl Harbor. As the ship went to “Battle Stations” it was immediately struck by successive aerial torpedoes. As the Oklahoma’s crew raced to their stations the ship began to heavily list to port.

Those who survived observed the courage of Chaplain Schmitt. The citation for his award in 1943 illuminated his bravery. The family received his Navy & Marine Corps Medal and the Purple Heart.

The citation detailed his heroism and bravery.When the ship capsized, he and 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, [he] . . . insisted he be pushed back into the ship so the others might escape. Calmly urging them on with . . . his blessing, he remained behind while his shipmates crawled out to safety. In so doing, he gallantly gave up his life for his country.

Father Schmitt was one of 429 killed in action aboard the Oklahoma. It was the second greatest loss of life of the ships at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. His body was never identified at the time of body recovery in 1943. However, 75 years after his death, science and technology would change all of that.

The Washington Post wrote, “In 2015, the Pentagon exhumed the remains of what are believed to be 388 of them. With the help of enhanced technology and techniques, experts have been gradually making identifications. Schmitt was identified with the help of DNA retrieved from a skull bone and matched with that of a relative. Last week, the DPAA announced that it had identified its 100th person from the USS Oklahoma.”

Father Aloysius Schmitt’s formal burial took place at Christ the King Chapel at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, on October 8, 2016. The nation and the US Navy bestowed upon this hero of Pearl Harbor one further award -- the Silver Star.