On December 7, 2017, exactly 76 years after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Pentagon representative Navy Chief of Chaplains Rear Admiral Margaret Kibben posthumously awarded the Silver Star Medal to Lt. j.g. Aloysius H. Schmitt in a moving, military ceremony held at Loras College. On behalf of Father Schmitt’s Family, nephews Dan and Del Schmitt and niece Frances Hemesath stepped forward to receive the Silver Star, the third highest medal awarded by the United States military.
Aloysius H. Schmitt was born on December 4, 1909, in St. Lucas, IA. He graduated from Loras College (then called Columbia College) in 1932. On December 8, 1935, he was ordained a priest in Rome and assigned to St. Mary’s Cathedral in Cheyenne, WY as an associate. In 1937, Father Al began serving Dubuque’s St. Mary’s Church.
Father Al received permission from Archbishop Francis L. Beckman to become a military chaplain, and he joined the United States Navy. On June 28, 1939, Father Al was appointed Acting Chaplain with a rank of Lieutenant, Junior Grade. He served in Quantico, VA and then spent seven weeks on board the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown before being transferred to the battleship USS Oklahoma in March 1940. At the age of just 32, Father Al died during the attack on Pearl Harbor, but not before saving the lives of twelve shipmates.
Father Al’s heroism has been recognized in the past. In 1942, he was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Medal, the Navy’s award for non-combat heroism. On July 24, 1943, the navy commissioned the destroyer escort USS Schmitt in Father Al’s honor. At Loras College, Christ the King Chapel, built between 1946 and 1947, was dedicated to Father Al, and his remains were interred in the chapel in October 2016 after being identified by the U.S. Department of Defense. Father Al’s chalice, prayer book, military medals, and other personal belongings recovered from the ship’s wreckage are now on display in the chapel’s vestibule. Finally, in March 1980, Dubuque officially changed the name of the Mississippi River island formerly known as City Island to Chaplain Schmitt Memorial Island in recognition of Father Al’s sacrifice.
Although much has been done to honor Father Al, many felt he deserved more. The posthumous presentation of the Silver Star Medal finally recognizes Father Al’s heroism and his supreme sacrifice. Those in attendance at the award ceremony listened carefully to the wording of the citation as Rear Admiral Margaret Kibben presented the award:
For conspicuous gallantry on 7 December 1941 while serving as Chaplain on the USS Oklahoma during the attack by Japanese forces on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
When the Oklahoma capsized, Lt., Jr. Grade Schmitt, along with other members of the crew, became trapped in a compartment where only a small porthole provided outlet for escape. With unselfish disregard for his own plight, he assisted his shipmates through the aperture. When they in turn were in the process of rescuing him, his body became tightly wedged in the opening. Realizing that other men had come into the compartment seeking a way out, Lt., Jr. Grade Schmitt insisted he be pushed back into the ship so the others might escape. He remained behind while his shipmates crawled out to safety with the pronouncement of his blessing. In so doing, he gallantly gave up his life for his country.
After presenting the medal, Rear Admiral Kibben remarked that December 7, 1941, was “a beautiful Sunday morning, and people were going about their business, a Sunday duty, which is usually a stand down day – a day of liberty for most on the ship.” Father Al had just finished saying mass when four torpedoes hit the Oklahoma at 7:48 a.m. “Because of his concern for his shipmates and for the love of his countrymen, he stepped out of the opportunity to be rescued and ensured other souls would be saved,” said Kibben. “Four hundred twenty-nine souls perished. Father Al was one.”
Father Al’s great-nephew, Dr. Steve Sloan, never met Father Al, but his family keeps Father Al’s memory alive. “We talk about what happened, how many sailors he helped escape, and what went on,” he said. “We kind of relive it every holiday, and it became a bit of a tradition. So, we’re very excited about the medal.”
Sloan explained that the application process for the Silver Star took nearly four years. He said many helped including Mike Gibson from the Center for Dubuque History, Loras College, Rear Admiral Kibben and Captain Daniel Mode from the Pentagon, Dubuque Archbishop Jackels, and Iowa Senator Joni Ernst. He thanked “a special group of people – the A Team or Father Al team,” which included Viet Nam veteran Dick Bridges, Assistant City Manager Teri Goodmann, Admiral Ron Wilgenbusch, and Brendan Quann, a retired attorney and West Point graduate who wrote the 29-page package submitted to the Pentagon along with 15 exhibits.
Sloan concluded, “Father Al always was a hero in our family, but now he is truly recognized as a hero by the military and by our country. This is a very special day for us. It’s easy to say Father Al was an inspiration for our family, now, let him be an inspiration for all of you. Let him inspire you to do great things the rest of your lives.”
The posthumous presentation of the Silver Star Medal to Father Al was not only long overdue, it was well deserved. “The presentation of the medal is not only appropriate, but simply the right thing to do,” said Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer. “One of my highest priorities is to honor the service and sacrifice of our Sailors, Marines, Civilians, and family members, and it is clear that Lt. Schmitt is a hero whose service and sacrifice will stand as an example for current and future service members.”