A tale of Pearl Harbor
This past week marked the 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, a day which, we were told, would live in infamy. While it can’t fairly be said to have died yet, it is certainly advanced in years now, frail and stooped and requiring a cane. Historians marked the occasion on my timeline. ABC covered a veterans’ reunion. Some papers ran anniversary pieces. But otherwise, December 7, 1941 has the feel of a day fading into the mists of time, soon to be recalled by nobody still living. If we say a child would have had to be at least a bright five to recall the day and its significance, that means its living memory is set to expire in at most 15 more years.
My own reading this week turned up a new-to-me story from one of the day’s most wrenching losses, the sinking of the U. S. S. Oklahoma. While some of her sailors were able to escape, others were trapped, going down with the ship in minutes as she “turned turtle.” Hillsdale historian Miles Smith noted that the otherwise highly forgettable dramatization Pearl Harbor springs to life for twenty harrowing minutes in this sequence. But it doesn’t include the story of the ship’s chaplain, Father Aloysius (“Al”) Schmitt.
A tall, slender, sporty Iowa farm boy, Schmitt excelled in seminary and was marked down early as a “future priest-intellectual to watch” by his superiors. He was remembered as both a gentle soul and a fierce debater, not to be underestimated in a sharp discussion on the finer points of canon law. But his good humor disguised deep, multiply repeated tragedy—the loss of not one but two siblings, and not one but both parents. Perhaps this was why his heart was inclined more pastorally than academically. By special request, at age thirty, he entered the ranks of Catholic chaplains in 1939—uncannily, on December 8.
At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, he had been serving the men of the U. S. S. Oklahoma for less than a year. But already, he was much loved, deeply embedded in the sailors’ world (though not of it—he became known for his way of carefully rounding them up for “approved” off-shore activities). On one occasion he was kept hospitalized off-shore for some illness, and it was fondly recalled how the lieutenant commander inquired about when he was coming back: “The Oklahoma hasn’t been the same without him. We’re all keen for him.” In fact, he was raising hell to get himself released and back to the ship.
The story of how “Father Al” met his fate that December morning is preserved in various shorter and longer versions on various websites, many drawing on an out-of-print student film made by his alma mater. Witnesses recalled the ship was hit mere minutes after he had conducted the morning mass. One vividly remembered his small group’s frantic scramble to escape through a pitch-black compartment as the ship listed. Schmitt was among them, but remained calm, locating and guiding the men towards a tiny porthole. The eyewitness was one of twelve sailors Schmitt pushed through one at a time, in turn helping those behind them. But Schmitt himself couldn’t make it through. It’s not clear why, given his slender build. It could have been the bottles of holy oil he’d grabbed from his safe to stuff in his pockets. For whatever reason, all the sailors’ combined efforts couldn’t free him. Realizing more sailors had found the compartment behind him, he told the heartbroken men outside to let him go.
The best contemporary account of this moment that we have in book form comes from fellow chaplain William A. Maguire, in his 1943 memoirs The Captain Wears a Cross. Searching for anyone who could provide information on Schmitt’s death, Maguire procured the treasure of a complete eyewitness letter by an electrician’s mate, some of which is quoted here. The sailor recalls, “One of the men said, ‘Chaplain, if you go back in there, you’ll never come out.’ Then Father Schmitt said, ‘Please let go of me, and may God bless you all.’ He disappeared back in the ship knowing well he would never come out of it alive. The ship was slowly turning over. Four or five men came out of that port while I was there helping.” Moments later, the surviving men had to abandon ship. Another eyewitness added the haunting detail that he could hear Schmitt splashing, but he couldn’t see anything inside the dark hole.
Father Schmitt’s remains would not be identified and recovered for 75 years. This was the same amount of time it took for his actions to be properly recognized, as his family jumped through many hoops to secure a posthumous Silver Star. His casket was given a hometown hero’s welcome, a solemn mass, and a final burial, detailed here. His corroded chalice and waterlogged Latin prayerbook were also retrieved. Schmitt had bookmarked the breviary for the next day’s psalm: Domine, Dominus noster, quam admirable est nomen tuam in universa terra! (O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!) The chalice was used for the memorial—its first liturgy since it sank.
Although poetic inspiration rarely strikes me these days, this story moved me to try something new. I tinkered with a ballad form at first, but finding that it didn’t quite gel, I came up with the idea of a shape poem. The shape is best appreciated in a “frontal” layout. Unfortunately Substack doesn’t allow this, so I reshuffled a few lines here and there to make it sort of work in cross-section form. At the end, I’ve provided a screenshot for people who are curious to see the way the poem reads as I originally conceived it. Either way, I hope you enjoy.
Chalice Behold! I say. Upon my shape, look well, upon my green-gold, long-corroded bones. Listen! I say. In silence, listen well, for being voiceless, yet I speak, I sing the song Shut up in me these three-score years and ten and five, since my last mass, since My first death, laid in a water grave, the day they said would live, a flame Eternal, now a flicker, memory now shielded in hands cupped, hearts Kindled, quickened, a face summoned, young, untouched by time. A voice remembered, followed, sought by faith in flooded vale, In iron shadow, starless night, where sight would fail, As sheep clung, calling for the shepherd, who Would say “Come, quick, now, here is light!” One man, two men, three men Twelve men, in all Pushed Pulled Pushed Pulled Through Turning, hands stretching back, In tug of war with death, contending, Losing, letting go, with One Last Goodbye And “May God bless You all, and may God save These last, lost few, These lambs I give to you.” I tell you this, I tell it true, I tell you, this I heard down through the depths, bent echo, borne To me, as I sank down, as I sank down to rest, to wait, ‘mid Ruin and death, dull gleam, faint spark unquenched, as bright as one Sword-flash of light, to pierce the heart, bright as the words upon a baptized Page, a morning psalm, a sacrifice of praise, sealed with the last obedience, last Commitment, the last wordless prayer: Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua. Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua. Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua.