Silver Star Medal for Valor awarded to Aloysius H. Schmitt

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DUBUQUE, Iowa (KCRG-TV9) -- It was 76 years ago on December 7 when a Dubuque man lost his life, along with thousands of others, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

More than 2,000 Americans died in the attack.

Among them was Aloysius H. Schmitt, a Chaplain Lt. j.g. from St. Lucas, who attended Columbia College, now known as Loras College.

He was on board the battleship U.S.S. Oklahoma on December 7, 1941.

Reverend Schmitt was feet away from escaping the battleship through a porthole as water came rushing inside. Rather than save himself, he asked to be pushed back into the sinking ship to save others.

Schmitt, more commonly known as "Father Al," went back and lost his life helping his fellow sailors get out alive, providing a blessing to everyone he helped get through.

More than 400 sailors on the U.S.S. Oklahoma battleship passed away, but for Schmitt, it was a choice he insisted on making.

This morning at the Academic Resource Center at Loras College, the Navy honored Reverend Schmitt for the act of heroism.

His family members said it's an absolute blessing to see his legacy honored in this way.

"It is significant," Dr. Steve Sloan, a great-nephew of Schmitt said. "Our family has always thought he was a hero. And we've always thought of what he has done being heroic. But now to have the Navy say it is... it kind of really brings it all home."

Dr. Sloan said although he never met Schmitt, the story of Father Al was a topic at every family gathering as he grew up.

"It just always came up," Dr. Sloan said.

In October 2016, 75 years after his death, the body of Schmitt was returned to Christ the King Chapel at Loras College, where Thursday's service took place in his honor.

In addition to the impact Reverend Schmitt has made on Loras, between his involvement on campus and the chapel being his final resting place, he had an obvious impact on the community.

One man, in particular, Adm. Ron Wilgenbusch, ended up joining the Navy after he said Schmitt's story inspired him. Schmitt was the Reverend who baptized Adm. Wilgenbusch.

"I was just ready for the Navy," Adm. Wilgenbusch said. "I thought it was the right thing to do. And he made an impression on me, there's no question about it. His service and the things that he did, definitely were a contributing factor in why I joined the Navy. So I never regretted it, never looked back, and I've always been very proud of the fact that he was the man that baptized me."

He says after hearing so much about Father Al growing up from his mother, who kept a picture of Schmitt in the family bible, he knew joining the Navy when he was seventeen years old was the absolute right decision.

"She had this picture of Father Al in the family bible which is still there," Adm. Wilgenbusch said. "And she'd haul that out every now and then when some family event would take place. And she'd say: 'that's the man who baptized you. He was a hero at Pearl Harbor.'"

At the ceremony, Schmitt's nephew accepted the award on behalf of Father Al.

He received the Silver Star Medal from the Navy Chief of Chaplains Rear Adm. Margaret Kibben, who stopped in Dubuque before flying to Hawaii for another ceremony.

Rear Adm. Kibben said it's almost unfathomable for someone to earn this medal but she told me given the circumstances, it's more than deserving for Schmitt.

Schmitt was 32 when Pearl Harbor was attacked.