At approximately the same moment my mother entered into a movie house, paying 14 cents, in Brewerytown, in North Philadelphia, to see a show and view news reels depicting a demented socialist/fascist raising a stiff sleeve decorated with an ugly swastika, Father Aloysius Schmitt was disrobing following a 7:00 a.m. Mass on board the USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor nearly 5,000 miles away. It was cold and rainy in Philadelphia. It was balmy and warm in Hawaii.
And everything was about to change. It was December 7, 1941.
My mom was fourteen-years-old. She was slightly built as most girls her age. She wore respectable but not fashionable clothing. Her smile was infectious when freely given, because she came from a good and loving family, yet she oft times refrained from unrestrained gaiety unlike many of her pre-teen peers because life during the Great Depression was sometimes harsh, sometimes lonely, sometimes without explanation. It took a toll on her. This you could see in the seriousness of her large brown eyes. They were questioning eyes.
In the movie house, suddenly everything went dark. A man came on stage and told everyone to “go home.” Something had happened. Something important. Somehow, my mother sensed this.
Father Al sensed something, too. The quiet of the brilliantly sun-filled Hawaiian morning shattered into alarm bells squealing and calling for general quarters. The Oklahoma was being strafed by Japanese torpedoes and quickly began to sink. There were calls for help everywhere. Father Al did not hesitate. He was all over the ship helping his fellow sailors to get out before the Nevada-class battleship keeled over. There was no more time for questions.
When my mother exited the movie house, she saw pandemonium in the streets. To this day she can’t even recall what the movie she was about to see was called. Who would? It didn’t matter anymore. Paperboys were already out on the street corners shouting their lungs out “EXTRA, EXTRA!”
“Everything stopped,” my mom said. “We didn’t go to school the next day (Monday). Shops didn’t open. “We were in shock.”
Remember, this was a time before television or instant communications, before the internet and Facebook. What did people do? They went to their homes. “We were so afraid,” mom said. They huddled close together and turned on their radios waiting for news with family and friends. And they prayed…
Onboard the USS Oklahoma, the torpedoes came so fast that there was no time to prepare for a proper defense. There was no time for questions as men struggled to save their lives. The ship was listing badly. Bombs fell on U.S. forces with impunity. Nothing could stop the Japanese juggernaut.
The American Pacific Fleet was being decimated, piecemeal, by Imperial Japanese forces. All the warnings of an impending attack, all the precautions taken by U.S. Army and Navy brass made absolutely no difference: except for the fortunate evacuation of American aircraft carriers days before the attack. And that was a God-send.
I asked my mom what people did in the days after the attack. “Georgie,” she said, “the churches were packed.” Nobody knew exactly what would happen. Indeed, they were scared, yet, millions of men and women answered the call to an undetermined fate because they knew their service was unquestionably expected and they did not hesitate to respond. No wonder Tom Brokaw called them “The Greatest Generation.”
At home, my grandmother got a job as a riveter at the Navy Yard in Philadelphia. Strange how Americans always answer the call to service when times are tough. My grandfather, my namesake, longed to serve our nation in the Second Great War, but he was too old and had three children to look after. My mom told me he was finally called up for service but only during the waning days of the war, but he could not accept. It was something he always regretted.
My father joined the navy at the age of seventeen and served in the European Theater. It was something you could do in those days. Everybody just wanted to pitch in and ante-up.
People did pray. Churches were full. In the days following Pearl Harbor prayers were a staple just as bread and soup were to hungry Americans during the Great Depression.
But, after all those prayers, fervently said beside bedsides and altars in countless American homes, were they really answered?
The Oklahoma was in dire straits on the morning of December 7, 1941. Her keel was turned over. Men were trapped beneath bulkheads that would not yield because of the pressure of onrushing sea waters. There was no help to be gained from outside sources. Only the men on board the Oklahoma who still had the facility to move about could help.
Father Al, trapped like all the others, managed to help his fellow sailors escape by squeezing through a small porthole. When it was his time to go he refused, even though he was half-way through. He insisted on going back into the porthole and save as many lives as possible. And, he did. He even insisted that his shipmates push him back into the porthole despite the fact the compartment was quickly filling with seawater. A few more sailors came safely through while Father Al watched and swallowed.
That day, December 7, 1941, many prayers said by many seamen were indeed answered. Prayers of family members thousands of miles away were certainly answered.
And, Father Aloysius Schmitt, who came from a hard-working German immigrant family in Iowa, succumbed to the sea, answering prayers he never dreamed of.
On this, the 75th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor, let’s bend a knee and give thanks to those, like Father Al, who gave us everything we know now as freedom.
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