Catholic Chaplains Under Fire: Pearl Harbor, a Half-century Later

He had never seen the harbor look as lovely as it did early that Sunday morning. “Joe, this is one for the tourist,” he said to the young sailor standing next to him on the pier. Later he would remember the blue-green waters of the lagoon, the pink clouds skirting the tops of the mountains that ringed the bay, and the rich green plantations along the shore. But above all, he would recall the sight of the great gray ships of war as they lay quietly along Battleship Row, floating so silently and majestically on the ebbing tide.

Soon it would be time for him to go out to his ship, the California, to offer Mass. He waited impatiently for the small boat that would take him. A stiff trade wind was blowing now from the west, he noted to himself. Since he would be saying Mass on the open deck, he had better tell the ship’s crew to put a wind-break in back of the altar, so that his chalice and Mass book would not blow over the side. It was such a bright and fresh morning, he told Yeoman Joe Workman once again. Finally the staff motor-boat arrived at the Officer’s Club landing where he had been waiting, and the two men stepped aboard.

At exactly the same moment, he heard the sound of distant airplanes, and looked toward the northwest, to see who could be flying into the harbor at such a precarious hour. “I spied a flock of light carrier planes that resembled our own,” he said later. Suddenly, they began diving almost straight down, dropping what looked like bombs on the ships moored along Battleship Row. He told Workman, “They’re phony bombs, full of flour or something.” Nevertheless, it seemed to him bizarre in the extreme that they had picked such a time for a “sham battle.”

Suddenly an airplane spun out of the sky and shot across his right shoulder. It carried a thin, glistening torpedo. “The plane leveled out about 20 feet above the water,” he remembered, “headed for a battleship, dropped the torpedo, and pulled up sharply, nearly hitting the upper works of the ship.” Another plane followed instantly. Looking carefully at the plane’s markings, the two men could see the tell-tale round patch of red paint on the plane’s fuselage—these were Japanese aircraft, they realized with a start, and not their own. Then came the din of bombs exploding nearby, and a great geyser of water erupting near the California.

“The shock made me strangely sick. All I could say was, ‘We’re in it. We’re in it.’” He braced himself against the railing of the boat, now pitching wildly in the waves sweeping the harbor. “God help us, we’re in it,” he said to himself again.

The observer was William A. Maguire, Pacific Fleet Chaplain of the Chaplain Corps, the United States Navy, in the Hawaiian Islands. The time was precisely 7:55 A.M., December 7, 1941, and it was Pearl Harbor. He had weathered the first of many close calls that he would experience that Sunday. With a start, he realized that if his craft had left the shore only a minute earlier, Japanese torpedo planes would almost certainly have blown it to pieces. But he had no time to think about that now.

Peering intently through the billowing haze, he could make out the dim outlines of a tragic scene: dozens, perhaps hundreds of men were swimming in the harbor, trying frantically to get away from the savage fires now gutting the California and its sister ships, the West Virginia and the Arizona. A few sailors, the lucky ones, had climbed onto rafts. Motor boats had picked up a few others. Most, however, bobbed up and down like corks in the fire-swept waters, a violent death in the lagoon now waiting for most of them. Maguire could do little except to impart a general absolution, knowing that many of the men in the water (non-Catholics as well as Catholics) would certainly have asked for it, had they been able to do so.

Maguire finally decided that he would try to board the California. Clearly the ship needed all the help it could get. Once on board, he headed for the officer’s wardroom, where a number of the wounded were waiting for treatment. They seemed so courageous in the face of their suffering and uncertain fate: most lay quietly on the floor, asking no favors, making no complaints. Navy corpsmen moved quickly along the rows of the injured, administering morphine and blood plasma, and bandaging open wounds. It was clear that many would not make it, and Maguire first administered the Last Rites (as it was then called) to the men already unconscious. (Their identification tags indicated their religion.) Then he gave it to everyone else who asked for it—ecumenism was about to begin at Pearl Harbor.

Meanwhile, the grim business of war went on: from the ammunition rooms below the deck, a steady stream of sailors, black with oil and sweat, carried boxes of live ammunition up the ladder to the anti-aircraft guns on the deck. At the same time, boats from the ship ferried the wounded to the shore, where trucks immediately sped them to the dispensary at the Army’s nearby Hickam Field.

By then, no one could doubt that the battleship California was in deep trouble. Four torpedoes had slammed into its side, making the ship list sharply. Sensing that the end was near for the dying vessel, Maguire moved as rapidly as he could among the wounded men on the deck and in the corridors, but he seemed unable to keep up with the growing tide of burned, lacerated, and dying men. They made a “grim tableau, lying there in the dark,” he would say later. Still, none complained. He heard as many confessions as he thought the dying ship would allow, then gave a second general absolution, this time to the whole ship’s company.

Abandon Ship

All too soon, he heard a grim-faced young officer announce the dreaded order, “Abandon Ship.” The California had started to go under. Maguire felt another crunching blow against the side of the ship, followed by a further tilt. He ran immediately to the ship’s top deck and joined the sailors who were moving the wounded men into small craft and lifeboats. A few minutes later, the situation had become perilous in the extreme: the California lurched again. Now it seemed that the capsizing of the ship was only a few moments away, and soon the whole gallery-deck was ablaze. Working against time, rescue parties succeeded in loading the last of the wounded into a waiting boat, then jumped into another and sped across the debris-strewn harbor.

From the safety of the shore, Maguire looked back at the California. It was blazing fiercely, but was still afloat. Fire tugs poured streams of water onto its flaming, bulging hull. By now, however, other ships were struggling for life: “The whole of Battleship Row had become a great inferno.” A career Navy man who had spent virtually all his life as a priest in the service, he must have felt as if his whole life were burning up before him.

A few minutes later, Maguire and the men from the ship arrived at the Hickham Field dispensary. He found dead and dying men lying all over the floor, but their numbers did not appear to be large, and the doctors and corpsmen seemed to have the situation in hand. Once again, he worked feverishly with the wounded, doing for each as the religious and personal circumstances of the man seemed to require.

Soon word reached him that the Marine barracks near the harbor had also suffered heavy damage. He decided to leave what he was doing and hurried away. The scene at the barracks was one of the worst to emerge from the attack on Pearl Harbor: all afternoon, wounded marines poured into the dispensary, but soon it was filled, and Maguire found himself leading the evacuation of the remaining injured to nearby hospitals in Honolulu. First, however, he needed to find transportation for them. After a difficult and frustrating search, he finally located several trucks and was able to move the men away. By sundown, he could report that all the Navy and Marine casualties had received treatment.

At the end of the day, as the sun slipped over the mountains to the west of the bay, he looked back one final time at the devastating scene in the water: “Battleship Row was a sight to break a sailor’s heart.” The Arizona was still burning fiercely, despite swarms of fire tugs pumping streams of water into its open hatches. No one could predict what would happen next to the stricken vessel.

As he looked at the wreckage, he worried especially about the chaplains who might still be on board the flaming ships, and for whom he, as senior Navy chaplain, bore a measure of responsibility. He wondered about his old friend Stanton Salisbury, a Presbyterian aboard the battleship Pennsylvania at the time of the attack. Had he escaped? So far he had no information about him at all. He wondered also about another Protestant chaplain, young Thomas Fitzpatrick, whom he feared was still on the Arizona. With its dying remains strewn about the harbor, Maguire wondered how he could possibly have survived. Finally, he thought about Aloysius Schmitt, a Catholic priest about the same age as Fitzpatrick, now stationed on the Oklahoma. The prospects of his survival seemed as remote as those of Fitzpatrick and the other men on the ill-fated battleships.

The Navy had not been the only target that day, however. The Army’s ground and air forces on Oahu had undergone their own ordeal of fire at the same time. Caught in the middle of the Japanese strike was the senior Army chaplain for Hawaii, Terence P. Finnegan. (Like Maguire, he was also a Catholic.) Finnegan would experience the full horrors of the day, and would come much closer than Maguire to joining the 2,325 servicemen who perished in the battle.

At precisely the same time that Maguire had been waiting on the dock of the Officer’s Club for the boat that would take him to the California, Finnegan was preparing to offer Mass at the Army’s Schofield Barracks, directly north of Pearl Harbor. He decided that before leaving his residence nearby, however, he would first stop at a small military chapel not far from home, to pick up some new candles. At 8:15 A.M., he would offer Mass in the barrack’s Assembly Hall for about 700 men, and he did not want to run out of candles while Mass was still going on.

He, too, had noted the hushed beauty of the early December morning, and he also thought that the distant formation of planes flying in from the sea was American, probably returning home from a recent maneuver. Suddenly they began to dive on the ships lying at anchor in the harbor, then on Hickam Field itself as well. A minute or two later, several of the smaller planes turned away from the bay and began flying directly over him, gliding so low that he could see the faces of the pilots.

Racing with Zeros

With a start, he saw that they were Japanese flyers, not American. He jumped into his 1931 Buick and drove frantically toward the Assembly Hall. His only hope now was that he might be able to beat the Japanese, and dismiss the men in time to save their lives. Along the way, however, the Japanese intervened: a fighter plane spotted his car and strafed it, the bullets splattering along the side of the road like silver dollars hitting a hard floor. Somehow, they missed.

He hoped that his luck would hold out—it was only a five-minute drive to the Hall, but the road seemed to go on forever. He remembered hitting a sharp turn in the road, then the car going into a wild skid. He gripped the steering wheel as hard as he could, somehow drove the vehicle into a ditch, then got back onto the road. He drove as fast as he could, reaching the Hall with almost no time to spare. So far no bombs had fallen, but by now Japanese planes had begun diving attacks, strafing the area from one end to the other. He dashed into the Hall and looked frantically about for the commanding officer, but could find only enlisted men. Suddenly a young soldier fell lifeless to the ground next to him; bullets had hit him in his forehead, killing him in a split second.

Finnegan and the Army corpsmen in the Hall began moving the dead and wounded into the nearest barracks, where Army doctors attended their injuries. He ministered to everyone who asked him for his help. With the Jewish and Protestant men, he recited prayers taken from their faiths, spoke whatever comforting words seemed appropriate to the man, then administered a final blessing. Catholic soldiers received confession and absolution if they were conscious; if not, he gave them the Last Rites, just as Maguire was doing at the same time on the California.

All morning and afternoon, he struggled against time to take care of the dead, the dying, and the gravely wounded. So exhausting was the work that he even lost track of the men whom he had seen. Late in the morning, he knelt beside a young Catholic soldier whose face was so covered with blood and dirt that he could not make out his features. “Let’s go to confession, son,” Finnegan suggested. The boy nodded, made his confession, and received absolution.

A while later, Finnegan came back to the same soldier again, but failed to recognize him because Army corpsmen had cleaned off the blood and the grime from his face, thus giving him an entirely different appearance. “Let’s go to confession, son,” he said once again. The boy smiled, nodded, and repeated his confession for a second time, then received absolution as well. Still later in the day (and now stumbling wearily from litter to litter), Finnegan came upon the same soldier a third time. Once again he failed to recognize him, because by now the doctors had completely covered his face with bandages. “Let’s go to confession, son,” Finnegan asked wearily. “Now look, Father,” the boy protested, “don’t you think twice is enough for one day?” Finnegan had to agree.

It was about five o’clock in the afternoon when Finnegan finally found time to take his breakfast. That night and all the following day, he received so many urgent calls from families asking about their sons that he was never able to go to bed, nor would he be able to take off his clothes for the next three days. The other Army and Navy chaplains in the area were fully as busy, and equally exhausted at the end of their ordeal by fire at Pearl Harbor.

While Finnegan and Maguire tried to take care of the men now on the shore, a frantic scene was taking place on a hospital ship moored at a pier in the harbor, the USS Solace. Chaplains Raymond B. Drinan, a Catholic, and Charles D. Christman, a Protestant, had been preparing to offer their separate religious services on board the ship when the attack started. As it happened, neither man would hold what the Navy called “Divine Worship” on December 7, because so many wounded and dying men began pouring onto the vessel. They decided to work as a team, visiting the wounded together, and supporting the dying in their last hours. In the days that followed, they wrote messages of condolence to the boys’ families at home. They had to work at a frenzied pace, since so many men perished on the ship during the attack, and in the days that followed. Once again, wartime necessity had given further impetus to a burgeoning ecumenism.

Meanwhile, Thomas L. Kirkpatrick and Aloysius Schmitt found themselves caught in the violent enemy attacks that had assaulted their two ships. Neither would survive December 7, 1941. The first wave of Japanese torpedo planes and bombers had attacked the Arizona with a spread of torpedoes and armor-piercing bombs, scoring a series of direct hits on the ship’s ammunition. The hapless vessel first writhed convulsively, then exploded in a holocaust of fire. It would never recover. Within one minute of the first bombing, the ship had been ripped from stem to stern, doomed to certain destruction. Walls of flame raced through the hull, while collapsing bulkheads trapped hundreds of men below the water line, giving them no chance to escape. Despite the ship’s hopeless condition, however, its surviving crew members fought desperately to save the vessel, but to no avail. Soon the Arizona’s loudspeaker shouted out an order to abandon ship.

The time was 10:32 A.M. Out of the 1,400 officers and enlisted men on board at the time, 1,103 would perish. Among them was Chaplain Thomas Kirkpatrick, whose body, along with those of his shipmates, remains entombed in the sunken hull. Nothing at all is known about the details of his last moments, since all of the sailors who might have witnessed his death themselves perished in the tragedy.

The same squadron of Japanese planes also attacked the Oklahoma, lying at anchor in the southernmost corner of the harbor. Three torpedoes ripped into her side, and she quickly listed at a perilous angle. Within five minutes, the senior officer aboard the embattled vessel ordered the evacuation of the ship, and ten minutes later the mighty structure rolled over completely. Flung to their deaths were 415 of the 1,354 officers and men on board the Oklahoma that day. Among them was their Catholic chaplain, Aloysius Schmitt of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa. No one knows whether Chaplain Kirkpatrick (of the Arizona) or Chaplain Schmitt (on the Oklahoma) died first. One can only say that Kirkpatrick was the first Protestant chaplain to perish in the war, while Schmitt was the first Catholic to suffer the same fate.

Aloysius Schmitt quickly became the American Catholic Church’s first World War II hero, thanks to a number of people who witnessed his heroic last hours and told about them afterwards. A native of Lucas, Iowa, Schmitt had taken his seminary studies at the North American College in Rome, where he also received ordination to the priesthood. (Assignment to studies at the “North American,” as it was generally called, usually meant that the seminarian’s bishop thought that the young man would eventually make a fine prelate himself at a later time in his life.)

In the case of Aloysius Schmitt, his superior’s confidence in his abilities seems easily justified. After his return home following ordination, and brief periods of work at Catholic parishes in Wyoming and Iowa, he volunteered for the Navy’s Chaplain Corps. In the next three years, most of the men in the Navy who came into contact with him said the same about his work in the service: he enjoyed the popularity and the respect of everyone, and demonstrated a fine talent for dealing with both Catholics and non-Catholics.

Not long before the Japanese attack, the Navy assigned Schmitt to the Oklahoma, which soon set sail for Hawaii. Like every true sailor, he now found his greatest wish granted: he would go to sea, enjoying the life of the ship, the officers, and the men. In the words of the poet John Masefield, he would go “down to the sea again.” Unfortunately, the voyage would be not only his first tour of duty at sea, but his last as well.

When the Oklahoma first docked at Pearl Harbor, William Maguire finally had a chance to meet the young chaplain about whom he had heard so much. He recalled his impressions of Schmitt: “He was tall, slender, and he looked no older than his age. He had all the ear-marks of a young junior officer” fresh from the Chaplaincy training school in Norfolk, Virginia. In every way, he seemed to enjoy success. While at Pearl, he organized the social activities of his young charges, seeing to it that enough transportation was available to take them to shore parties, and what the Navy called “legitimate entertainments” such as movies and dances.

Death by Sacrifice

Always punctual about his duties, he rose at an early hour on the morning of December 7, 1941. Just as he always did, he set out for the crew’s recreation room, where he, too, planned to offer an early morning Mass. He had hardly begun preparations for the service when three Japanese torpedoes burst into the side of the vessel, forcing it to heel quickly to 20 degrees, then 30 degrees, as tons of water crashed into her hold. In a few minutes, hundreds of men were trapped in the cabins below. Schmitt made his way with several crew members to a compartment deep inside the ship, where he had heard that a number of men were waiting for rescue. When he reached the room, he found it pitch black, except for a little light coming in from a single porthole. Sea water poured into the compartment, and the ship continued to list at a sickening angle. The open porthole offered the only means of escape, and Schmitt frantically pushed and shoved the men through the narrow opening.

When all of the men inside had finally escaped from the ship, he asked the men outside to pull him through the narrow opening. Tragically, he could not squeeze his way through the tiny opening, no matter how hard he struggled, or how hard the men outside tried to pull him out. An electrician’s mate recalled what happened next: “Boys, I’m having a tough time getting through,” Schmitt said. “So we all got together and tried to pull him out,” the young man remembered, but he simply could not make it through the passage.

Schmitt’s next words shocked the men who heard him: “Men, you are endangering your lives,” and he asked them to stop trying to rescue him. The men protested: “Chaplain, if you go back in there, you’ll never come out.” Schmitt’s reply was, “Please let go of me, and may God bless you all.” A minute later, he fell back into the darkened ship. Meanwhile, more men had crawled into the black compartment, and he continued pushing and shoving them through the porthole until, inevitably, water filled the blackened chamber completely. The electrician’s mate remembered hearing Schmitt splashing around in the water. Soon the splashing stopped. The chaplain was gone.

The young priest’s body was never recovered, but his breviary, the book of prayers that all Catholic priests read every day, was later discovered. He had put a marker on the passages for December 7, 1941, and it was clear that early in the morning hours, long before the Japanese attacked, he had already read his prayers for the day. Had he lived just one more day, until December 8, 1941, he would have celebrated the seventh anniversary of his ordination to the Catholic priesthood, and the feast of the Immaculate Conception as well.

His heroic death inspired a flood of accolades, tributes, and honors. Later in the war, a destroyer called the Schmitt was named after him. The Marine Corps built a Catholic chapel at its training base in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, dedicating it to the lost chaplain. A year after his death, the Navy posthumously awarded him the prestigious Navy and Marine Medal, citing his brave efforts on behalf of his men: “Calmly urging them on with a pronouncement of his blessing, he remained behind while they crawled out to safety.”

But perhaps the most touching tribute to the fallen priest came from one of those who know him best, a young sailor on the ship. Several months after the attack, a Jewish boy spoke to a Protestant church audience in San Francisco, describing in graphic terms how Schmitt had helped shove him to safety, then fell back into the ship. The priest had given up his own life, he said, so that he could still live. One can see the young man’s address as still another exercise in wartime ecumenism: a Protestant audience listened to a Jewish sailor speak warmly about a Roman Catholic priest, who had died that he might continue with his own life.

Within minutes of the bombing, word of the attack spread across the globe. Some 4,800 miles (and five time zones) away in Washington, D.C., the Chief of Army Chaplains was sitting in the living room at his comfortable quarters in suburban Fort Myer, Virginia. Brigadier General William R. Arnold (also a Catholic) had decided to spend this particular Sunday at home, but Sunday had long since ceased to be a day of rest for him. Two years of mounting international crises with Germany and Japan had led to an unprecedented increase in the size of the armed forces, with a parallel rise in the size of the Chaplain Corps in both the Army and the Navy. He worked six days a week now in the Munitions Building in downtown Washington, D.C., putting in 12- to 14-hour days at his office. On Sundays, though in desperate need of rest, he spent most of the day going through unanswered correspondence, dictating letters into a recording machine.

On the afternoon of December 7, as the radio buzzed quietly in the background, he was working on his papers. Suddenly a voice broke in: “We interrupt this program to bring you a special announcement. The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor.” Only a minute or two later, his office in Washington was ringing his home. Yes, he had heard the news, the general said. Yes, he would report to his office immediately.

As he sped across the Arlington Memorial Bridge to his office, he doubtless thought about the safety of his seven Army chaplains at Pearl Harbor. And what about the Philippines, Wake, and Guam? Would the Japanese strike there, too? He had chaplains stationed in those places, too, as well as in all the other Army outposts in the Pacific that the Japanese were likely to hit next. He had many men to worry about on that dark night of December 7, 1941, the first day of a whole new era for the United States.


  • Donald F. Crosby

    At the time this article was published, Donald F. Crosby, S.J., lived at the University of San Francisco. He was completing work on a book about the Catholic chaplains of World War II: Men of God, Men at War. He passed away in 2002.

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