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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Dec. 7, 1941. It was on this day 80 years ago that Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor and marked the dramatic beginning of a world war and the loss of hundreds of thousands of American lives.
Among those casualties were 66 Catholic priests who served in the chaplain corps. Included in that number were three Iowans — Fathers Thomas J. Barrett and Owen T. Monaghan of Des Moines and Father Aloysius H. Schmitt of Dubuque.
All three men were heroes, but the story of Father Schmitt is particularly compelling. He was, in fact, the first among all the U.S. chaplains during World War II to give his life for his country. He died on Dec. 7 while ministering to shipmates on the USS Oklahoma.
Aloysius Schmitt was one of 10 children born to a farm family in St. Lucas, Iowa. A bright child, he was destined for college and eventually the priesthood. He graduated from Columbia College (now Loras) in Dubuque in 1932. He responded to a call to the priesthood and was ordained in 1935. After pastoral work in Iowa and Wyoming, he joined the chaplains corps.
Father Schmitt’s deep love for his faith and his country led him to accept an officer’s commission in the U.S. Navy and eventual assignment to the Oklahoma. He knew men in uniform needed the comfort of the sacraments. These men would be his parish.
On Dec. 7 the Oklahoma was hit by nine torpedoes and numerous bombs. The ship rolled in fifty feet of water and many of the 1,300 sailors on board were trapped below decks. Some men were able to escape on their own, others were saved by rescue crews, but 429 died as the Oklahoma sank to the bottom of the harbor.
Father Schmitt might well have escaped but he would not leave his men behind. Repeatedly he pulled sailors from the wreck and calmed them on with prayer and personal blessings. He died among his parishioners and was awarded the Silver Star and the Navy and Marine Corps medals for heroism.
Sadly, many of the recovered bodies were too disfigured to be identified and Father Schmitt was believed to be among those sailors. All that remained of the gallant priest were two personal items — a chalice and a breviary — and these were donated to Loras College.
In the years after the war, the chapel at Loras was dedicated in his honor. And the U.S. government never gave up the hope that someday they might identify his earthly remains and those of the other unidentified sailors.
Fast forward to 2016. Thanks to God’s blessing and modern technology, government laboratories used DNA to identify specific bone fragments as those of Father Schmitt. These precious relics were returned to Dubuque where they were buried in the chapel dedicated to him.
That is the great irony in the story of Aloysius Schmitt. Not only was he the first chaplain of World Wari II to die, but he was also the last to find his final place of rest. His short life is the very definition of sacrifice to God and country. Let’s remember him and the other chaplains — Catholic and non-Catholic alike — who made that ultimate sacrifice.
Timothy Walch is a member of the Iowa Historical Records Advisory Board and the author of many books and articles on a range of topics in American history. Twalch47@gmail.com