Father Aloysius Schmitt.
Father Aloysius Schmitt. Contributed

Big screen inspires tale of heroism

THE war movie presently showing at Warwick's Twin Cinema titled Hacksaw Ridge is a true story of heroism during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, when a young conscientious objector named Desmond Doss won America's highest military award, the Congressional Medal of Honour.

Desmond overcame the prejudice and ostracism of his fellow soldiers to eventually be enlisted as a combat medic. He was attached to the United States 77th Infantry Division, which was given the task of pushing back the heavily defended Japanese forces on Maeda Escarpment nicknamed "Hacksaw Ridge", at Okinawa. Desmond single-handedly rescued 75 wounded soldiers to win America's highest honour, the only non-combatant to ever receive this award.

 

Desmond T Doss.
Desmond T Doss. contributed

A similar situation to this occurred four years earlier when the Japanese launched a sneak attack on the American naval fleet at Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941.

The attack, which occurred on a quiet Sunday morning, took the island by surprise, and many of the United States heavy warships were either sunk or heavily damaged with the loss of about 2500 lives.

A young Catholic priest, Father Aloysius Schmitt, who was the naval chaplain attached to the USS Oklahoma, a ship with 1300 navy personnel aboard, had just finished Sunday mass when the attack occurred. The Oklahoma was hit by nine torpedos and bombs, which caused it to roll over and was quickly sinking in water about 50 feet in depth.

Trapped in a small compartment of the sinking ship, Father Schmitt assisted as many as 12 sailors to escape through a porthole, even sacrificing his chance to escape, to allow others to exit the small opening.

Aloysius Schmitt was born in 1909 in a small farming community near Dubuque, Iowa. He went to the local Catholic school in St Lukes Parish and was a graduate of Columbia College (now named Loras College) in 1932.

He entered the priesthood at an early age and was ordained in Rome on December 8, 1935.

For the next five years he served as parish priest at St Boniface, Wyoming and at St Mary in Dubuque.

In 1940, Aloysius sought permission from his Archbishop to enlist in the United States Navy as a chaplain which was duly given, as the country was on the brink of war.

Altogether, 429 sailors and marines perished when the Oklahoma went down with only 32 saved at that time.

It was fortunate that many of the ship's component were on shore leave or the casualty figures would have been higher.

Many of the Pearl Harbour dead were buried in Hawaii as many could not be identified.

Father Aloysius was the first naval chaplain to die in battle and so he was buried in a grave with the headstone of the "Unknown Soldier", as many of the Pearl Harbour dead were unrecognisable and were buried with the inscription on their graves "Known only to God".

A short time later, Father Aloysius's encrusted chalice and breviary were located in the wreck of the Oklahoma and are now enshrined in the Chapel at Loras College in Iowa.

For his action and Supreme Sacrifice on board the Oklahoma that day, Father Aloysius Schmitt was posthumously awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroism. His citation read:

"Realising that other men had come into the compartment looking for a way out, Chaplain Schmitt insisted that he should be pushed back into the ship so that others may escape.

He calmly urged them on with a pronouncement of his blessing, he remained behind while others crawled out to safety."

It was just recently in 2015, that the United States Department of Defence exhumed the remains of some 388 of these "unknown" military personnel buried in cemeteries on Hawaii, and using the latest DNA technology managed to identify a skull fragment of Father Aloysius that got a match with one of his relatives.

On October 8, 2016, Father Aloysius's remains were interred in Christ the King Chapel at Loras College, Father Aloysius's Alma Mater, after a Memorial Mass to honour his life, and the Supreme Sacrifice that he made on that fateful day of December 7, 1941.

The action of these two heroes in Private Desmond Doss and Chaplain Father Aloysius Schmitt, are just a couple of examples of the hundred, perhaps thousands of acts of valour that took place in the heat of battle during the Second World War.

The common strand that appears to link these two heroes together is their love of God and the strength of the convictions that they both possessed.

So today, on the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbour attack, let us remember and honour these two selfless men who go down in history as the first two non-combatants to win honours on the battlefields of the Second World War.



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