Lieutenant j.g. Aloysius Schmitt had just finished morning mass aboard the USS Oklahoma. Acting chaplain of the Okie, a Sunday meant a busy day for him, a relaxed day for almost everyone else on board the ship. Since they were in port and the country was at peace a Sunday was a day of rest. Besides, the port was a tropical paradise. Life was good for the crew of the Okie.
Father Schmitt, born on December 4, 1909, was an Iowan, about as far from the sea as it is possible to be in the US. Studying in Rome for the priesthood, he was ordained on December 8, 1935. After serving at parishes in Dubuque, Iowa and Cheyenne, Wyoming, Father Schmitt received permission to join the Navy and was commissioned a Lieutenant j.g. on June 28, 1939.
On December 7, 1941 at 8:00 AM the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor began. The Oklahoma and the other battleships on battleship row were the primary targets. Alarms began to sound on the Oklahoma, and the ship was hit almost immediately by nine torpedoes from Japanese torpedo bombers. The ship began to list badly and every sailor knew that it was probably just a few minutes before the Okie would capsize.
Father Schmitt was lucky. He found his way to a compartment with a few other men. A small porthole was available to escape to safety. Father Schmitt began to shove the other men through. After everyone else was out and the compartment was rapidly filling with water, Father Schmitt began to struggle through the porthole. Then he heard other men begin to enter the compartment. Realizing that every second was precious if those men were to be saved, Lieutenant Schmitt ordered the men on the outside to push him back into the compartment so that he could push the newcomers through the porthole. The sailors begged him to come out and told him he would never get out alive if he went back in. Father Schmitt pulled rank as an officer and a priest of Jesus Christ: “Please let go of me, and may God bless you all.” Father Schmitt kept pushing men through the porthole until the compartment was flooded and he was killed. He saved 12 lives that day. Four weeks later at a Protestant service in San Francisco, a Jewish sailor told how he owed his life to a Catholic priest.
Chaplain Schmitt was the first American chaplain to die in World War II. For his courage he was awarded the Navy and Marine Medal in 1942 and a destroyer, the USS Schmitt, was named in his honor in 1943.
His mortal remains eventually went into a grave in a Hawaii cemetery, his body one of hundreds of the Pearl Harbor dead that could not be identified. In 2016 his remains were identified using DNA, exhumed and returned to Dubuque. On October 8, 2016 a funeral mass and burial were held at Christ the King Chapel at Loras College, his undergraduate alma mater, in Dubuque, Iowa.