Sunday, December 07, 2014

Remember Pearl Harbor

That awful December 7th, 73 years ago, was also a Sunday.  At a stroke, the lives of millions were turned upside down and changed forever.

A Japanese camera captured that stroke on the morning of December 7, 1941.  The images of Japanese planes, tiny yet unmistakable, can be seen passing over Ford Island.  The U.S.S. West Virginia and U.S.S. Oklahoma, on the far side of the island, have just sustained torpedo hits. 

One of the iconic images of the Pearl Harbor attack: the U.S.S. Arizona burns.  The explosion of the Arizona's forward magazines claimed 1,177 of the 2,403 American lives lost at Pearl Harbor.  The crew of the nearby U.S.S. Tennessee attempts to fend off burning oil with fire hoses.  

The first two American chaplains to die in World War II -- one Protestant minister, one Catholic priest -- died at Pearl Harbor.  Protestant chaplain of the Arizona, Capt. Thomas Leroy Kirkpatrick, sprang to action in sick bay as soon as the attacks commenced.  Sick bay was so near to the forward magazines that he was killed almost instantly in the great explosion while ministering to the wounded.  Chaplain Kirkpatrick still lies with his crewmates in their sunken ship at the bottom of the harbor.
Chaplain Kirkpatrick's clock was recovered from the wreck of the Arizona, the hands frozen at the moment the forward magazines exploded.  

The U.S.S. Oklahoma, capsized and burning.  429 men perished aboard the Oklahoma.

The total number of the Oklahoma's dead would have reached 441 if it were not for Fr. Aloysius Schmitt, Lieutenant Junior Grade, Acting Chaplain.

On December 7, 1941, the young priest from St. Lucas, Iowa, had only been ordained for six years, appointed a chaplain for two and a half years, and had celebrated his 32nd birthday only three days earlier.  Did he have any suspicion that that was to be his last birthday, and indeed almost his last day on earth?  Yet although death came to Fr. Schmitt suddenly, it did not find him unprepared, nor even without Viaticum: when the Japanese attack began, he had just finished celebrating Mass.  

When disaster struck, Fr. Schmitt went to sick bay to minister to the wounded and dying. Mission Capodanno gives the following moving account of what happened next:
When the Oklahoma was struck and water poured into her hold, the ship began to list and roll over. Many men were trapped. Schmitt found his way -- with other crew members -- to a compartment where only a small porthole provided enough space to escape.

Chaplain Schmitt helped other men, one by one, to crawl to safety. When it became his turn, the chaplain tried to get through the small opening. As he struggled to exit through the porthole, he became aware that others had come into the compartment from which he was trying to escape. As he realized that the water was rising rapidly and that escape would soon be impossible, he insisted on being pushed back through the hole so that he could help others who could get through the opening more easily. Accounts from eyewitnesses that have been published in the Arizona Memorial newsletter relate that the men protested, saying that he would never get out alive, but he insisted, "Please let go of me, and may God bless you all."

Fr. Schmitt, martyr of charity, was posthumously awarded the Navy/Marine Corps Medal for his selfless bravery, which saved the lives of twelve crewmen who otherwise would have been trapped in the sinking ship.

Remember Pearl Harbor, soon to pass from living memory.  Remember and do not forget.

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