Regardless of religious practices, chaplains are critical to military operations. They support troops, ensure religious needs are met and negotiate peace with local religious leaders. On multiple occasions, they’ve selflessly put their faith and fellow humans before themselves in combat. The first American chaplain to die in the Second World War did so while saving others. His name: Father Aloysius Schmitt.
Becoming a chaplain
Aloysius Schmitt was born in St. Lucas, Iowa on December 4, 1909. One of 10 children born to Henry and Anna Schmitt, he was a smart child who graduated from high school and Columbia College. The world was his oyster, but he found himself being called to serve a higher purpose, which prompted him to pursue the priesthood.
Following his post-secondary graduation, Schmitt went to Rome, Italy, where he studied how to become a priest. Three years later, just four days after his 26th birthday, he was ordained and assigned as an associate at Saint Mary’s Church in Dubuque, Iowa. He followed this up with pastoral work in Wyoming.
By the time 1939 rolled around, Schmitt was permitted to become a chaplain.
Aloysius Schmitt enlists in the US Navy
With the onset of the Second World War, Aloysius Schmitt found himself, yet again, being called to serve a higher purpose. This time, it was on behalf of his country. He joined the US Army’s Chaplain Corps, after which he accepted an officer’s commission in the US Navy. While the United States was not yet at war, things were beginning to ramp up in Europe.
After being appointed acting chaplain, with the rank of lieutenant, junior grade, Schmitt was sent to Marine Corps Base Quantico, after which he was stationed for seven weeks aboard the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5). In March 1940, he was reassigned to the Nevada-class battleship USS Oklahoma (BB-37).
Little did Schmitt know that it would be aboard this vessel that he’d meet his end.
Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor
On the morning of December 7, 1941, the Japanese launched a devastating attack on Pearl Harbor – the event that would see the US officially enter World War II. The assault came after months of increasing tensions between the two nations, and it took those stationed in Hawaii completely off guard.
With bombs raining down overhead, military personnel did their best on the ground to try and stop the attack, with many losing their lives in the process. It’s reported that 2,403 Americans were killed, the majority of them sailors.
On top of this, the US Navy suffered extensive damage to its Pacific Fleet. Not only were 188 aircraft completely destroyed, but four battleships, one former battleship and one harbor tug were sunk, with several others damaged. Among the vessels to sink beneath the water’s surface was the ship Aloysius Schmitt was stationed aboard: the USS Oklahoma.
Aloysius Schmitt showed great bravery in the face of danger
As one could surmise after learning about the loss of the USS Oklahoma, Aloysius Schmitt did not survive the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. At the time of the aerial assault, the chaplain was aboard the battleship, which sunk after being struck by a number of torpedoes.
One of these strikes caused Oklahoma to capsize, prompting many sailors to jump into the oil-soaked water, where they were horrifically burned alive. Others managed to escape by crawling along the mooring lines. However, a large number of sailors found themselves stuck below deck as the battleship began to roll over, including Schmitt.
The only exit was through a tiny porthole, through which the chaplain helped a number of comrades escape. Once they were all out, he began to crawl through, only to notice that more men had appeared. While he could have continued through and allowed them to figure the situation out for themselves, he backed out and helped them, instead.
Unfortunately, time ran out for Schmitt, who lost his life when Oklahoma went under, becoming one of 429 crewmen to perish aboard the vessel. In total, he helped 12 men escape. For his efforts, he was posthumously awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, which was upgraded to the Silver Star in October 2017.
Giving Aloysius Schmitt a proper burial
During recovery efforts in the aftermath of what happened at Pearl Harbor, the USS Oklahoma was raised for scrapping. Those who had perished aboard the ship had their remains exhumed. Aloysius Schmitt’s body was among them. However, at the time, his identity was unknown, meaning he was buried as such in Hawaii.
The chaplain’s final resting place remained unknown for decades – that is, until the mid-2010s, when the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) began the USS Oklahoma Project, which aimed to identify the “unknowns” of the vessel.
On September 30, 2016, the DPAA announced that it had officially identified a set of remains as belonging to Schmitt, thanks to a DNA match to a grandnephew and other investigative measures. His body was returned to Iowa, and he was interred at Christ the King Chapel at Loras College.