He never got out.
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. He was also the first Catholic chaplain - in fact, the first of any chaplain - to die in World War II.
Now, in time for the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, he came home to where he grew up and where he has never been forgotten.
On Oct. 5, Father Schmitt's flag-draped coffin arrived for a memorial Mass at his home parish, St. Luke Church in St. Lucas, a two-hour drive from Dubuque.
Born on Dec. 4, 1909, he grew up the youngest of 10 children in a farm family in the rural community and attended Catholic schools. After graduating from Loras College, then called Columbia College, he studied for the priesthood in Rome and was ordained on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, Dec. 8, 1935. In 1939, his archbishop permitted him to enlist as a Navy chaplain.
Father Schmitt's nephew Del Schmitt, now 82 years old, was only 5 the last time he saw his uncle. "It was hard on my dad and the family," he said, when they learned of the death of "Father Al," as he was affectionately known. "People that knew him said he was a great guy. Everybody liked him. Now, there's satisfaction they did bring him back."
Schmitt and his brother and sister presented "the gifts for the Mass," he said of the special Mass.
Another lifelong St. Luke parishioner, Leander Stammeyer, led the Rosary at the Oct. 8 Mass and also prayed an Our Father and Hail Mary in German "to show how he [Father Al] learned the Rosary at his mother's knee."
Stammeyer, a spry 95-year-old, remembers Father Schmitt well. "I served at his first Mass when he was ordained," he said. "I played checkers with him when I was a little boy, and he was 10 years older than me."
During vacations from school, Stammeyer stayed with his grandmother in St. Lucas, and Father Al was home from college. His grandmother told him to play checkers with Father Al in the evening. They would play for at least two hours.
(Story continues below)
Subscribe to our daily newsletter
At Catholic News Agency, our team is committed to reporting the truth with courage, integrity, and fidelity to our faith. We provide news about the Church and the world, as seen through the teachings of the Catholic Church. When you subscribe to the CNA UPDATE, we'll send you a daily email with links to the news you need and, occasionally, breaking news.
As part of this free service you may receive occasional offers from us at EWTN News and EWTN. We won't rent or sell your information, and you can unsubscribe at any time.
"I always looked up to him. He gave a good example," Stammeyer recalled. Stammeyer himself went to seminary in Milwaukee before going "into the service because Uncle Sam called me." He entered the Navy in 1942.
All of these years later, Stammeyer still has vivid memories of Father Al. "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."
Sloan, himself a graduate of Loras, never met his great-uncle, but heard much about him from the family.
"I was fortunate enough to know the sister that was closest to him age-wise - Sister Germaine Schmitt - who was a Franciscan sister and would spend holidays with us growing up," Sloan explained. "Not a holiday passed when we didn't have a discussion about Father Al in our household. It was a common discussion."
Sloan recalled how Sister Germaine would always say, "We knew what he did, but when he left that porthole and said, 'I'm going to check on some other men and bless them,' we don't know what happened to him."