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Pearl Harbor, My Father, and a Courageous Priest

I will never forget my visit to Pearl Harbor. Janet and I joined a long line of tourists waiting to see the USS Arizona Memorial, which marks the final resting place of 1,102 sailors and Marines killed on the ship during the attack. The memorial straddles the sunken hull of the Arizona without touching it, enabling more than two million annual visitors to see the remains and remember those interred within them.

As we stood above the sunken vessel, my thoughts turned to my father. Dad was a Sunday school teacher while in high school and planned to be an optometrist before World War II began. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army and fought in the South Pacific. The atrocities he witnessed damaged his body and affected his soul. Everything about his life changed because of this day seventy-five years ago.

President Franklin Roosevelt called December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy.” As I reflect on this day, my thoughts turn to another man whose story will forever be a part of Pearl Harbor. Aloysius H. Schmitt was a Catholic priest from St. Lucas, Iowa. He was serving as a Navy chaplain aboard the USS Oklahoma on this fateful day.

The Washington Post tells his story. Father Schmitt had just said Mass that Sunday morning when his ship was hit by at least nine Japanese torpedoes and grazed by several bombs. The battleship quickly rolled over in the water, trapping hundreds of men below deck. Some were saved by rescue crews or swam underwater to find their way out. A few managed to escape through portholes. Father Schmitt is said to have helped as many as twelve sailors get out of one small compartment. He chose to remain behind while they crawled to safety. As a result, he died while they lived.

His remains were recovered from the Oklahoma wreckage during a months-long salvage operation, but they were too damaged and jumbled with other bodies to be identified. As a result, they were buried as “unknowns” in a Hawaii cemetery. Last September, Father Schmitt’s body was identified with the help of DNA retrieved from a skull bone and matched to a relative.

The priest’s chalice and prayer book were recovered from the wreckage a few months after the attack. They have been kept at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, the college from which Father Schmitt graduated in 1932. His prayer book was found marked with a page ribbon for the December 8 readings, including the Eighth Psalm in Latin:

Domine, Dominus noster, quam admirable est nomen tuam in universa terra! Translated, David’s words of praise read, “O Lord, our Lord, how magnificent is your name in all the earth!”

I believe that these words explain Father Schmitt’s courage.

We serve God sacrificially to the degree that we believe him worthy of our sacrifice. And we do not allow the sins of others to deter us from serving him if we know that our sins cannot change his majestic character.

Father Schmitt started December 7, 1941, by praising and serving our magnificent Lord. Let’s join him today.

NOTE: I invite you to read Our Unusual Christmas Gift, Janet’s article about my foot surgery and the peace of Christmas.


Publication date: December 7, 2016


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