Military chaplains of all faiths are an integral part of the armed forces. They serve the spiritual needs of service members, regardless of religious affiliation. Sometimes, these noncombatants make extreme sacrifices for the good of the men and women whom they serve. For example, Fr. Emil Kapaun was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor during the Korean War for selflessly protecting and caring for the men of his unit when they were captured. During WWII, the first American chaplain of any faith to be killed in action died saving his shipmates aboard USS Oklahoma (BB-37) at Pearl Harbor.
Fr. Aloysius H. Schmitt was an Iowa native. He attended Columbia College, now Loras College, in Dubuque and graduated in 1932. Afterwards, he studied in Rome to become a Catholic priest and was ordained on December 8, 1935. He served as a priest in the Archdiocese of Dubuque at Saint Mary’s Church and later in the Archdiocese of Cheyenne at Saint Mary’s Cathedral. After four years of priesthood, Schmitt received permission to become a chaplain and joined the Navy. He received a commission as a Lt. j.g. on June 28, 1939.
On December 7, 1941, Schmitt was serving aboard USS Oklahoma which was moored in berth Fox 5 on Battleship Row. The ship was struck by Japanese torpedoes and quickly began to capsize. Many sailors, including Schmitt, were trapped belowdecks. The chaplain joined a group of fleeing sailors and found a compartment with a porthole barely large enough for a person to squeeze through and escape. Schmitt helped force his fellow sailors through the tight aperture and ensured their survival. When it came his turn to abandon ship, he became stuck and noticed that other men had entered the compartment looking for a means of escape.
Schmitt insisted he be pushed back into the ship to help the other sailors get out. He calmly urged them on and blessed them as they clambered through the tight porthole to safety. Schmitt remained on board Oklahoma as she sank and is credited with saving 12 of his fellow shipmates. In doing so, he sacrificed himself. Although Schmitt’s communion chalice and Latin prayer book were recovered from the ship shortly after the attack, his body was not positively identified. He was originally buried in Hawaii as an unknown.
In 1944, the Navy presented a special crucifix to the Archdiocese of Dubuque in Schmitt’s memory. The 24-inch tall cross was made from the teakwood deck of Oklahoma and the corpus of Christ was shaped from metal salvaged from the ship. It was later put on display with his communion chalice, prayer book, military medals, and other personal belongings in the Christ the King Chapel at Loras College. The chapel was built between 1946-1947 as a memorial to Schmitt.
In 2015, the Department of Defense exhumed the remains of 388 Pearl Harbor unknowns for identification. The next year, Schmitt’s remains were identified using DNA from a relative. His remains were returned to Iowa where a Mass at his home parish of St. Luke in St. Lucas was celebrated in his honor on October 5. Schmitt’s remains were then transferred to Dubuque for a funeral Mass and burial at Christ the King Chapel on October 8.
Originally, Schmitt was posthumously awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, a noncombatant award. However, in 1945, the Navy reexamined its award policies and determined that Schmitt was eligible for the Silver Star. His upgraded award was confirmed on October 6, 2017.