Pearl Harbor at 80: How Courageous Chaplains Saved Lives

Poignant remembrances commemorate the somber anniversary.

The USS Oklahoma capsizes in a photo taken during the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Father Aloysius Schmitt, who had just celebrated 7am Mass on board, died after saving sailors’ lives.
The USS Oklahoma capsizes in a photo taken during the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Father Aloysius Schmitt, who had just celebrated 7am Mass on board, died after saving sailors’ lives. (photo: U.S. Navy photo/National Archives / public domain)

The bright sun and lofty clouds seemed to announce another beautiful Sunday at Pearl Harbor. 

Catholic chaplain William Maguire was on the dock with his assistant, Seaman Joseph Workman. As they waited for the launch to take them out to the battleship USS California, where Father Maguire, the Pacific Fleet chaplain of the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps, was to celebrate Mass, the priest basked in the beautiful day, telling his assistant, “Joe, this is one for the tourist!”

It was early in the morning on Dec. 7, 1941.

Jesuit Father Donald Crosby, in his writings, including Battlefield Chaplains: Catholic Chaplains in World War II, would recount the minute details of what these and other Catholic chaplains would face beginning at 7:58am Hawaiian time. 

Approximately 15 miles north, Father Terence Finnegan, the senior Army chaplain for Hawaii, was having similar thoughts while getting ready to leave for the Army’s Schofield Barracks to celebrate Mass. Approximately 700 soldiers were already heading to the hall. As he was picking up some extra candles at a small chapel by his residence, a five-minute drive to the barracks, Chaplain Finnegan spotted a formation of planes in the distance. He thought they were American planes returning from early maneuvers.

Simultaneously, at the Officer’s Club landing, Fleet Chaplain Maguire was boarding the small motorboat to take him to the California, when he, too, first thought the approaching aircraft were American planes on military exercises, as unusual as the timing was. 

Father Crosby reported how Chaplain Maguire watched as they dived upon Battleship Row and dropped what he first thought were “phony bombs” — until one plane came out of the sky near him and released what he immediately knew was a torpedo. On the next plane he saw the telltale red insignia: They were Japanese aircraft. 

 

‘God Help Us’

Boom! Exploding torpedoes hit the California.

He later recounted, “The shock made me strangely sick. All I could say was, ‘We’re in it. We’re in it.’ God help us, we’re in it.”

At the same time, Chaplain Finnegan was realizing what was happening: The planes began diving toward the ships in the harbor. Some planes turned toward his direction and were flying so low he could see the pilots’ faces. 

He raced in his 1931 Buick to the barracks to warn servicemen gathered there. Divine help was surely with him, as a Japanese fighter plane strafed his car, with the bullets stitching the road alongside him. 

Reaching the hall, the chaplain ran inside as the low-flying planes attacked the area.

Back on Battleship Row, when the first wave of Japanese planes swooped into the harbor at 7:48am, Father Aloysius Schmitt on the battleship USS Oklahoma had just finished celebrating the 7am Mass. 

The 32-year-old priest from Dubuque, Iowa, had been ordained on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, Dec. 8, 1935. As the world situation grew grimmer, due to war already underway in Europe and China, he wanted to tend to the spiritual needs of those in the military. With his bishop’s permission, Father Schmitt became a Navy chaplain in 1939, commissioned a lieutenant, and, in 1940, assigned as chaplain on the Oklahoma.

On that fateful morning 80 years ago, in rapid succession, four torpedoes hit the Oklahoma — then more struck. The commanding officer would later report in official U.S. Navy Yard documents the initial explosions happened within about 70 seconds — and within eight to 10 minutes the ship rapidly rolled over about 135 degrees, then more, with only one side above water.

By this time, Father Maguire was headed to the California, which was afire, to see what he could do. He saw the hundreds of sailors swimming and trying to climb onto rafts or into small boats to escape the fire spreading on the water. 

The chaplain immediately began giving general absolution to the men, as detailed by Father Crosby.

In just minutes after that initial attack, Father Maguire was able to board the California and headed to the wardroom, where numerous wounded had already been brought for medical attention. Other sailors were on the decks. Seeing many were dying or badly injured, the chaplain quickly looked at their identification tags and gave last rites to those Catholics who were unconscious, followed by ministering to others who asked for last rites. He had only minutes to hear confessions of the conscious, too, on the dangerously listing vessel before the order to “Abandon Ship” blared.

At Schofield Barracks, Father Finnegan was similarly anointing the unconscious, giving last rites, hearing confessions, and giving absolution to those who were conscious. He prayed with Protestants and Jews, too, in prayers familiar to them.

 

Trapped Below Deck

There was next to no time for words of comfort on the Oklahoma. Within 10 minutes of being hit, the ship would roll over, with hundreds trapped below deck. During those frantic minutes, as men scrambled to escape the capsizing ship, Father Schmitt began pushing trapped men as fast as he could through a small porthole to safety. It was the only possible escape route in the darkened cabin. One man pushed out was sailor Bob Burns, who had served as an altar server at Mass that morning.

Interviewed years ago in the documentary For God and Country, Burns vividly remembered that Father Schmitt “recognized my voice and said, ‘Over here!’ There were two gentlemen topside pulling, and he was pushing people through — he pushed me out.” Once Chaplain Schmitt pushed 12 men out safely, the men tried pulling him through the small porthole. He was partly through, but got stuck; then he heard men behind him and insisted those outside push him back into the ship so he could help those still inside. 

Father Schmitt told the men trying to pull him through, “Please let go of me, and may God bless you all.” Another would say Father Schmitt also said, “I’m going to check on some other men and bless them.”

The heroic priest was among 429 sailors and Marines who died aboard the Oklahoma — one of the two ships losing the most men at Pearl Harbor — and among the 2,325 who perished that day. He was also the first Catholic chaplain to die in World War II.

“He was one of the finest men I had ever known,” Burns said years later. “It was an honor knowing him.”

As the hours of Dec. 7 went on, back on shore, Chaplains Finnegan and Maguire were taking care of as many of the injured as possible. Father Finnegan even pulled a badly injured pilot from a crashed plane and gave him last rites. Chaplain Maguire was put in charge of bringing the wounded to hospitals in Honolulu. At the same time, on the hospital ship USS Solace, Catholic Chaplain Raymond Drinan and a Protestant minister worked together helping the dying and wounded aboard. They later spent days writing all of the men’s families.

 

Chaplain’s Chalice

For Father Schmitt, the story did not end that harrowing morning 80 years ago.

In 1944 the Navy Department presented the Archdiocese of Dubuque with a 24-inch-tall crucifix made from the Oklahoma’s teakwood deck with the corpus of Christ from the ship’s metal in honor of Chaplain Father Schmitt. The Witness, Dubuque’s Catholic weekly, carried a Dec. 14, 1944, front-page article on the presentation by the chief of chaplains, eighth naval district, who recalled Father Schmitt’s “zeal in the service of others, coupled with a sincere and winning personality.” Mentioning the motto of Loras College, where Father Schmitt graduated — Pro Deo et Patria (For God and Country) — he added, “When he realized the hour had come for him to follow in the footsteps of his Master he might well hold his head high as he went forward a worthy bearer of the motto of the Alma Mater.”

When he was awarded the Silver Star posthumously, the citation read, in part: “With unselfish disregard for his own plight, Chaplain Schmitt assisted his shipmates through the porthole. While his shipmates were in the process of rescuing him his body became wedged in the narrow opening. 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. Calmly urging them on with a pronouncement of his blessing, he remained behind while they crawled out to safety.”

In 1947, when the college dedicated its new Christ the King Chapel in Father Schmitt’s honor, both Cardinal Samuel Stritch of Chicago and Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet during World War II, were present. An accompanying display contained several of Father Schmitt’s personal effects recovered from the Oklahoma, plus items like his medals and a rosary made from the ship’s wood. The personal items included his chalice and his prayer book that Father Al, as the men called him, had marked with the ribbon, still in place, for prayers the following day, Dec. 8, which was to be the sixth anniversary of his ordination.

The chalice and prayer book were recovered between 16 and 18 months later, when the Navy raised the Oklahoma from Pearl Harbor. The remains of the 429 who died aboard the Oklahoma were found over the course of many months, but 388 were unable to be identified. Buried in Hawaiian cemeteries, in 1950 they were reburied in 61 caskets at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. Once DNA identification became possible, the U.S. Department of Defense determined to return as many men’s remains as possible to their families.

Dr. Steve Sloan never met his great-uncle Father Schmitt but heard much about him from the family. He explained to the Register in 2016 that a forensic genealogist for the department used mitochondrial DNA, stronger from the female side of the family tree, for the identification. 

In September 2016, military representatives came to Iowa to tell relatives that they positively identified Father Schmitt’s remains. The Sloans were overjoyed. Father Al could be buried in his home diocese, where he had never been forgotten.

Just before the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, Father Schmitt came home. On Oct. 5, 2016, two months shy of that 75th anniversary, his flag-draped coffin arrived for a memorial Mass at his home parish, St. Luke Church in St. Lucas, a two-hour drive from Dubuque. Then, on Oct. 8, 2016, at Christ the King Chapel at Loras College in Dubuque, another memorial Mass took place. After the Mass, the casket with Father Schmitt’s remains was taken outside for full military honors and then interred in the chapel.

Present was Father Schmitt’s nephew Del Schmitt, then 82 years old. He was only 5 the last time he saw his uncle who was heading to the Navy. “It was hard on my dad and the family,” he told the Register in 2016, when they learned of the death of Father Al. “People that knew him said he was a great guy. Everybody liked him. Now there’s satisfaction they did bring him back.”

Lifelong St. Luke parishioner Leander Stammeyer led the Rosary at that Oct. 8 Mass. Then age 95, he still had vivid memories of the chaplain. 

“I served at his first Mass when he was ordained,” he recalled to the Register in 2016. “I always looked up to him. He was a kind of a mentor, as far as I was concerned,” he said. “I looked up to him. He had a real smile on his face and was a real friend to all people.”

Archbishop Michael Jackels of the Dubuque Archdiocese celebrated the Mass. Father Daniel Mode of the Chief of Chaplains Office of the Navy, who concelebrated, told the Register in 2016, “It was indeed an honor to represent the chaplain corps at that funeral. It truly made me realize the sacrifice that he made 75 years ago never dissipated. It’s linked to Christ’s sacrifice; it’s eternal. Even 75 years later, it has the same awe. That was an amazing witness, not only to what Chaplain Schmitt was, but the essence of what sacrifice is.”

Archbishop Timothy Broglio, head of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, also concelebrated the memorial Mass. He shared with the Register five years ago how the lesson Father Schmitt taught at Pearl Harbor continues to reverberate: “The burial of the earthly remains of Father Al Schmitt, whose heroism is so typical of Catholic chaplains’ commitment to be men for others, reminds us of his valor immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor 75 years ago. Just as the Lord, whom he loved and served, Father Schmitt gave up his life so that others might live. I pray that his selflessness might inspire all people to imitate his concern for others and his commitment to life."

At that Oct. 8 Mass at Christ the King Chapel, when Archbishop Jackels lifted the chalice during the consecration, many hearts were filled with emotion. It was the first time this chalice — Father Schmitt’s own — had been used since the 7am Mass aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. That moment defined how his sacrifice, and those of others at Pearl Harbor, will be remembered and echo on each anniversary — this 80th and beyond.

This story was updated after posting to correct the spelling of Father Maguire’s last name. The Register regrets the error.

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