Remains of Pearl Harbor’s hero priest identified after almost 75 years

Father Aloysius H. Schmitt, who was aboard the USS Oklahoma when it sank during the attack on Pearl Harbor. His body was never found, but his prayer book and chalice were. CREDIT: Loras College.

The remains of a courageous Navy chaplain who helped shipmates escape from the stricken battleship USS Oklahoma after it was torpedoed at Pearl Harbor have been identified almost 75 years after he perished in the attack.

The bones of Lt. j.g. Aloysius H. Schmitt, a Catholic priest from St. Lucas, Iowa, were identified by experts with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency as part of a project to put names with the remains of those who died on the ship Dec. 7, 1941.

Father Schmitt’s corroded chalice, with a cross etched in its base, and his waterlogged Latin prayer book were recovered from the wreckage months after the attack.

But his body and the bodies of most of the sailors and Marines recovered were too jumbled and decomposed to be identified at the time.

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The Oklahoma’s loss of life at Pearl Harbor – a total of 429 sailors and Marines – was second only to the 1,100 lost on the USS Arizona, which remains a hallowed historic site. The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into World War II.

Father Schmitt, one of 10 children in a rural farm family, will be buried Oct. 8 at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, the college said. He graduated from Loras, then called Columbia College, in 1932.

He will be laid to rest inside Christ the King chapel, which was built after the war as a memorial to him. (Then-Chief of Naval Operations and war hero Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz attended the chapel’s dedication in 1947.)

“Just amazing,” Steve Sloan of Dubuque, a great-nephew of Father Schmitt’s, said Monday. “December 7th it’ll be 75years. It’s been a long time.”

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“The interest in his story, and the interest in the whole event, is far bigger than I ever anticipated,” Sloan said in a telephone interview. “The calls we’re getting, the people who are talking about it.”

Father Schmitt, 32, had just said Mass that Sunday morning when the Oklahoma was hit by at least nine Japanese torpedoes and grazed by several bombs, according to reports in the National Archives.

The battleship, which had a complement of about 1,300, quickly rolled over in 50 feet of water, trapping hundreds of men below decks.

Thirty-two were saved by rescue crews who heard them banging for help, cut into the hull and made their way through a maze of darkened, flooded compartments to reach them.

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Others managed to escape by swimming underwater to find their way out. Some trapped sailors tried to stem the rushing water with rags and even the board from a game. One distraught man tried to drown himself.

A few managed to escape through portholes – saved by brave comrades such as Father Schmitt, who is said to have helped as many as 12 sailors get out of a small compartment.

He was posthumously given the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroism.

The medal citation states that after helping several shipmates to safety, he got stuck in the porthole as other sailors tried to pull him through.

“Realizing that other men had come into the compartment looking for a way out, Chaplain Schmitt insisted that he be pushed back into the ship so that they might escape,” the citation says.

“Calmly urging them on with a pronouncement of his blessing, he remained behind while they crawled out to safety,” it says.

Most of the dead were found in the wreckage during the months-long salvage operation, especially after the Oklahoma was righted in 1943, according to the Arlington, Va.-based DPAA. They were eventually buried as “unknowns” in a cemetery in Hawaii.

Last year, the Pentagon exhumed the remains of what are believed to be 388 of them. Sixty-one rusty caskets were retrieved from 45 graves. Numerous caskets contained the remains of several individuals.

And with the help of enhanced technology and techniques, experts have been gradually making identifications. More than a dozen have been made since the project began. The remains are being studied at special labs in Hawaii and Omaha.

Father Schmitt was identified with the help of DNA that was retrieved from a skull bone and matched with that of a relative, the DPAA said.

Word of his identification first came from the college and news outlets in Dubuque this month. The DPAA said it planned to make the official announcement Friday.

The priest’s chalice and prayer book are at Loras College. When the book was found in the ship, it was still marked with a page ribbon for Dec. 8 readings, including the Old Testament’s Eighth Psalm in Latin:

Domine, Dominus noster

quam admirable est nomen tuam in universa terra!

O Lord, our Lord,

how awesome is your name through all the earth!