By Jill Kruse
Witness Editorial Assistant
DUBUQUE — Just three days after his 32nd birthday, Father Aloysius Schmitt, a native of St. Lucas, Iowa, and chaplain in the U.S. Navy, was killed aboard the battleship the USS Oklahoma during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Now, nearly 75 years after his death on that infamous December day, new efforts are underway to identify Father Schmitt’s remains and bring them home to Iowa to rest.
Father Schmitt was born in 1909, the youngest son of Henry and Mary Schmitt’s ten children. He attended Loras College in Dubuque, then known as Columbia College, from which he graduated in 1932. He studied for the priesthood in Rome and was ordained on Dec. 8, 1935. Father Schmitt served as a parish priest for several years following his ordination before receiving permission to become a chaplain in the U.S. Navy. In 1940, he was assigned to the USS Oklahoma.
Dr. Steve Sloan, a member of St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Dubuque, never had the opportunity to meet his great-uncle Father Schmitt, but he’s learned a great deal about him thanks to older relatives who have shared stories and by what’s been said of him by veterans who also served on the Oklahoma. “He was a gentle, soft-spoken man,” Sloan said of Father Schmitt, “but he had a great, witty sense of humor that drew people to him. By all accounts, he was very well respected by the sailors of his ship, both Catholic and non-Catholic alike.”
Shortly after Father Schmitt finished saying Mass aboard the Oklahoma on the morning of Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, the ship was hit by torpedoes during the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, causing it to capsize and trapping much of its crew below deck. Father Schmitt and a number of other sailors found themselves stuck in one of the ship’s flooding compartments, a small porthole their only means of escape. According to survivors, Father Schmitt helped push 12 men through that porthole to safety in the frantic moments after the attack. But Father Schmitt himself did not make it out alive. He received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and the Purple Heart for his heroism.
Rose Foley of Dubuque, Father Schmitt’s niece, who was 11 when her uncle was killed, remembers exactly where her family was when they heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor. “We were sitting in the living room, sharing a big bowl of popcorn when it came over the radio,” she recalled, “and my mother just said, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s Father Al! That’s Father Al!’ She just knew her brother had been killed and how right she was. She cried; we all cried.”
The remains of the 429 sailors and Marines killed on the Oklahoma were eventually found in recovery efforts in the months and years after the attack, but decomposition had made all but a small number unidentifiable. In 1944, the bodies of the unidentified, Father Schmitt’s presumably among them, were buried as “unknowns” in two Hawaiian cemeteries. They were exhumed three years later in an attempt to identify them using dental records, but when those efforts proved unsuccessful, they were reburied in 1950 in 61 caskets at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.
Over half a century later, in 2003, one of those caskets was dug up, and five crew members were identified through DNA testing. But analysis showed that the remains of dozens of other crewmembers were also present in that same casket. Four years later, another casket was disinterred and an additional member of the Oklahoma’s crew was 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, and the names of five newly identified sailors were released this January. The painstaking process of identifying the remains of the crew is now possible through advances in forensic science and technology, but the work is still slow and challenging. Sloan said military officials have told him they hope to have the project completed by the end of 2016. For now, though, the family waits to learn whether Father Schmitt’s remains will be among those identified.
“I’m not sure where he will be buried if he is identified,” Sloan said. “St. Lucas was his home, but he also loved Loras College. The chapel at Loras is dedicated to him and his chalice and prayer book, recovered in the ship’s wreckage, are on display there. He lived and died reflecting the Loras motto; Pro Deo et Patria – For God and Country. But either way, let’s hope it’s a decision we have to make. Having to determine where he will finally be laid to rest is a good problem, one I hope we have.”
According to Sloan, it would mean a great deal to the family to be able to bring Father Schmitt home after all these years. “It would be the final chapter in his journey,” he said. “I don’t know if it necessarily gives the family closure or not, but it’s the right thing to do, especially in light of all he did. This just needs to be done for him.”
This story is provided courtesy of The Witness, the official publication of the Archdiocese of Dubuque.