Seventy-six years after he died at Pearl Harbor, an Iowa chaplain will get a combat medal

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Seventy-six years after he died in the attack on Pearl Harbor, a Navy chaplain who helped sailors escape from a sinking battleship was honored with the Silver Star medal Thursday in a ceremony at his alma mater in Dubuque.

Lt. j.g. Aloysius Schmitt, a Catholic priest from St. Lucas, posthumously received the third-highest decoration for valor in combat during a ceremony on the campus of Loras College.

Navy Chief of Chaplains Rear Adm. Margaret Kibben presented the medal to family members during the ceremony.

Schmitt was buried in a special crypt there after his remains were identified last year by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

The Navy commissioned a ship in his name. Christ the King Chapel, built between 1946 and 1947 on the Loras campus, was dedicated to him.

After graduating from Loras in 1932, Schmitt studied in Rome and then served as an associate pastor at St. Mary Church in Dubuque. He entered the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps in 1939, according to Loras.

He was assigned to USS Oklahoma in 1940 and was aboard the ship when it was torpedoed and capsized during the attack on Dec. 7, 1941.

His remains were not accounted for at first, because the bodies of most of the sailors and Marines recovered from the ship were too jumbled and decomposed.

Father Schmitt, 32, had just said Mass that Sunday morning when the Oklahoma was hit by at least nine Japanese torpedoes.

The battleship, with its complement of 1,300, quickly rolled over in 50 feet of water, trapping hundreds below decks.

Thirty-two men were saved by rescue crews who heard them banging for help, cut into the hull and made their way through a maze of darkened, flooded compartments to reach them.

Others managed to escape by swimming underwater. Some trapped sailors tried to stem the rushing water with rags and even the board from a game. One man tried to drown himself.

A few managed to get out through portholes — saved by brave comrades such as Schmitt, who is said to have helped as many as 12 sailors escape a small compartment.

In 1942, he was honored with the noncombat Navy and Marine Corps Medal. But after recent appeals by supporters and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, the Navy conducted a review and in October upgraded the medal to the combat award.

The citation details his 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.”

The Oklahoma’s loss of life at Pearl Harbor — a total of 429 sailors and Marines — was second only to the 1,100 lost on the USS Arizona. The attack at Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into World War II.

Most of the Oklahoma’s dead were found in the wreckage during the monthslong salvage operation and were buried as “unknowns” in a cemetery in Hawaii.

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.

“It’s been 76 years,” Steve Sloan, a great-nephew of Schmitt’s, said from Dubuque. “It’s pretty overwhelming.”

As for “Father Al,” Sloan said, “I suspect he wouldn’t want any of this attention. ... He was a common guy . an Eastern Iowa farm boy.”

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