The First Navy Chaplain Killed at Pearl Harbor Returns Home, 75 Years Later

USS Oklahoma during the attack on Pearl Harbor
USS Oklahoma during the attack on Pearl Harbor

The remains of the first chaplain killed during World War II were returned home recently to Dubuque, Iowa.

The Rev. Aloysius Schmitt died at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, when the USS Oklahoma was struck by Japanese torpedoes. As water rushed in, Schmitt and other seamen couldn’t escape from a compartment except by a porthole. Instead of escaping, Schmitt lifted 12 twelve men to safety before the vessel capsized. He was one of 429 crewmen killed.

In September, the Navy announced his remains had been confirmed as found. A memorial Mass was held at St. Luke’s church in St.Lucas, followed by his remains being laid to rest at a chapel dedicated to his name in Dubuque’s Loras College.

Schmitt was confirmed as a priest in 1935, serving at St. Mary’s Church in Dubuque before enlisting in the Navy four years later. He had been posthumously awarded the Marine Corps and U.S. Navy medal for bravery and the Purple Heart, among other recognitions.

Schmitt’s great-nephew, Steve Sloan, also of Dubuque, and a member of the Loras College Board of Regents grew up hearing stories about his great-uncle and monitored the defense department’s labors to identify him and other crew members buried in 61 caskets beneath gravestones tagged for the unknown in Hawaii.

Schmitt’s great niece, Mary Bouska, who never met her great-uncle, said family members described him as a quiet, kind person with a humorous disposition.

U.S. Navy officer Lt. Brian Lewis escorted Schmitt’s remains to Dubuque from Hawaii. He was flabbergasted by Schmitt’s story, he said. When Lewis grasped the depth of the story, he was left speechless.

He was honored and humbled at the opportunity to complete the assignment. In his 20-year career, the duty to escort a Second World War veteran back to his final resting place was the high point of his career, The Des Moines Register reported.

Lewis escorted the casket to Atlanta from Hawaii the beginning of October and further to O’Hare airport in Chicago. Police officers, firefighters, and military members on active duty held ceremonies honoring Schmitt on the tarmac of each airfield.

He forfeited his life for the country and his people unselfishly by living his faith, Bouska said.

Schmitt’s return home wasn’t fully realized until the hearse crossed the bridge into Dubuque from Illinois, said Sloan.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE