Long after Hawaii attack, chaplain's remains identified
Telegraph Herald | .
published: September 09, 2016
DUBUQUE, Iowa — Dubuque resident Dr. Steve Sloan never met his great-uncle Chaplain Aloysius Schmitt.
But in many ways, he feels like he knew the man.
Stories about Schmitt's life — and the heroism he displayed on the day of his death — were recounted at seemingly every family gathering Sloan attended.
Relatives beamed with pride as they told Sloan of how "Chaplain Al" saved the lives of 12 sailors on Dec. 7, 1941, and how he placed their well-being before his own during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
But Sloan always could tell something was missing from these stories.
"The idea that the remains were never identified was problematic for all of Father Al's siblings," Sloan said of Schmitt's nine older siblings. "It bothered them a lot that their youngest little brother never came home. I could always tell that was a sad point for them."
After nearly 75 years, Schmitt's family will receive the sense of closure they sought for so long.
The remains of Schmitt — who was born in St. Lucas, Iowa, and attended what is now Loras College in Dubuque — have been discovered and identified in an effort led by the U.S. Department of Defense.
Currently being held in Hawaii, Schmitt's remains will be transported to Iowa during the first week of October.
A service will be held in Schmitt's hometown of St. Lucas on Oct. 5.
The remains then will be transported to Dubuque, where a wake will be held at Loras College on Oct. 7. A funeral service and interment will take place at Loras the following day.
A process that had stretched on for years culminated earlier this week.
Flanked by two military representatives, Sloan and his wife, Julie, on Monday morning arrived at the doorstep of Art Schultz in Milford, Iowa.
Their presence at Schultz's home was tied to military protocol, which dictates that a deceased soldier's primary next of kin be notified if remains are discovered.
Schultz married Schmitt's niece Dorothy in 1951. While Dorothy was present during the military notification, her struggles with Alzheimer's disease made it difficult for her to grasp the significance of the news, Art recounted.
For Art, however, who has been regaled with stories of Schmitt's bravery for decades, news of the discovery hit home.
"I think it is a great thing for the family," Schultz said Tuesday. "A lot of the family members have (died). For those who are still alive, they seem really interested and thankful (the military) has been doing something like this."
Schultz also is no stranger to the realities of war. He served among the occupying forces in Japan from 1946 through 1948 and observed the aftermath of cities that had been decimated in World War II.
He believes news of Schmitt's discovery will help to educate a new generation of Americans.
"These things wake people up a little bit. They make them aware of past history," he said.
For Sloan, the visit to Milford was years in the making.
About three years ago, Sloan was contacted by military representatives. They were seeking a family member who could provide DNA that could be used to help identify Schmitt's remains.
Sloan kept close tabs on the process. As he sat with the Schultzes, it hit him that those efforts finally came to fruition.
"There was definitely a point in that meeting where Julie and I looked at each other and thought, 'I cannot believe this is happening,'" Sloan said.
Schmitt was born in St. Lucas in 1909. He was raised on a farm and quickly became immersed in the local church.
He went on to attend Columbia College, now known as Loras, and graduated in 1932.
He served as an associate pastor at St. Mary's Church in Dubuque and entered the chaplain corps of the U.S. Navy in 1939. One year later, he was assigned to the USS Oklahoma.
Schmitt was aboard the battleship on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese Navy launched a surprise aerial attack against the American naval base at Pearl Harbor.
Schmitt had just concluded celebrating Mass when four torpedoes slammed into the ship. The lower decks quickly filled with water, trapping sailors who desperately searched for a way to escape.
Historical records indicate that Schmitt was among a group of sailors who discovered a small porthole leading out of the ship. Schmitt had the chance to escape but refused, instead choosing to use his tall, slender frame to hoist other sailors through the porthole and out of the sinking ship.
The USS Oklahoma capsized within minutes, and Schmitt became the first chaplain killed during World War II.
His story continues to draw the admiration of military veterans such as Dick Bridges, who serves as vice president of Veterans Memorial Plaza in Dubuque.
"This is somebody who gave his life to save other people," Bridges said.
The awards and honors bestowed upon Schmitt in the years that followed underscore the extent of his bravery.
He was awarded several military medals posthumously, including the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps medal for bravery and the Purple Heart. Two years after his death, the newest destroyer escort in the Navy was named the USS Schmitt.
In 1977, a memorial to him was dedicated on a site named after the hero, Chaplain Schmitt Island. The memorial was subsequently relocated to 1851 Admiral Sheehy Drive, also on the island.
Schmitt was among 429 crew members on the USS Oklahoma killed in the attack.
In the years that followed, the remains of just 35 of these sailors and Marines were identified.
The rest of the bodies — often referred to as "the unknowns" — were buried in 61 caskets at National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.
More than a half-century later, technological advancements and forensic science sparked new efforts to explore the burial location.
Two of these caskets — the first in 2003, and the second in 2007 — were disinterred. The initial casket led to the identification of five crew members, while the second led to one more.
In April 2015, the U.S. Department of Defense announced all the caskets would be exhumed.
Military officials aim to complete their analysis of the remains by the end of 2016. The department must estimate at least a 60 percent identification rate in order to exhume co-mingled remains, and Bridges said an ever higher success rate is expected.
"They expect greater than an 80 percent identification success rate," Bridges said. "That is 300 or some families scattered across America, for funerals to be planned. This is a big deal."
The Fayette County community of St. Lucas — it has 138 residents, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates — maintains a strong attachment to Schmitt.
At age 95, resident Lee Stammeyer admits that not all memories come to him quickly, but those of Schmitt remain fresh today.
Stammeyer was about 11 years old when Schmitt was beginning his studies at Columbia College.
During Schmitt's visits to St. Lucas, the two would occasionally play checkers together.
Stammeyer remembers Schmitt as "well educated," noting that he seemed like he wanted to read a lot.
Most of all, though, Stammeyer remembers Schmitt's friendliness.
"His character was just good," he said. "You just believed in him."
Schmitt is memorialized in an exhibit on the second floor of German-American Museum, Library & Family History Center in St. Lucas.
Clair Blong, who serves as president of St. Lucas Historical Society, said Schmitt's role in the community, the military and the church remains a point of interest.
He also emphasized that Schmitt's death made an immediate impact in St. Lucas in 1941.
"I think it really helped St. Lucas realize it was going to be a part of this war effort, when you have someone die on the first day of the conflict who is from this town," he recalled.
Virginia Manderfield, also a volunteer with the historical society, said Schmitt's impact and memory still touches St. Lucas today.
"He was sort of a favorite son," she said. "For a lot of people who have gone into the service, (Schmitt's legacy) gave them pride in serving their country. He was very loved, respected and honored for what he did."
The motto at Loras College is pro deo et patria, a Latin phrase meaning, "For God and country."
It seems fitting that Schmitt's story is cherished among those at the college.
"I think (the motto) says it all," said Mike Gibson, archivist at Center for Dubuque History at Loras College. "The college is very proud of its religious service and its service to the military too."
Gibson credits Schmitt's family with helping to keep his memory alive at Loras. He noted that relatives have donated an abundance of artifacts and documentation that has helped maintain a connection to Schmitt.
The most visible example can be found in Christ the King Chapel, completed in 1947 as a memorial to the servicemen of World War II and, specifically, to Chaplain Schmitt.
An exhibit dedicated to Schmitt, fixed on the back wall of the chapel, includes a chalice, paperweight and pen that were aboard the USS Oklahoma when it sank.
Gibson believes it is "a miracle" that the items were recovered intact. And he speaks with pride when he recounts the actions of Schmitt on that fateful day.
"I think there is no question he is truly a military hero," said Gibson. "What really stands out is the fact that he had that compassion for his fellow sailors. He was willing to risk his life to make sure as many of them were saved as could be saved."
Teri Goodmann, Dubuque's assistant city manager, will help plan the arrangements for Schmitt's homecoming next month. She said she often reflects on his actions on the last day of his life.
"Whenever I think back to that day and how Chaplain Schmitt didn't try to save himself, I am struck by the incredible self-sacrifice," she said. "It gives me great reason to believe in the goodness of people, for the possibilities and potential of humankind."
Bridges believes the discovery of Schmitt's remains will usher in a new chapter in Dubuque's connection to the late hero.
"I think it will bring closure for the family, for the community and, especially, for veterans," he said.
To Sloan, his great-uncle's homecoming will provide a happy ending to a tragic tale.
He admits that he still struggling to wrap his head around the reality.
"It just doesn't seem possible to me," he said. "For my whole life, we always heard that he was never found. The opportunity to bring him home, it really is very humbling.
"I didn't think it would ever happen."