There is no greater symbol of a country’s determination to defend its freedom than a warship. Despite their name, naval warships are rarely used for wars; they are mostly used to prevent them. As President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed on 2 December 1902 during his second annual message to Congress: “A good Navy is not a provocation to war. It is the surest guaranty of peace.”
For a heroic sailor, honorable leader, or even a faithful chaplain, there is no greater service honor than having a ship named after you. In the U.S. Navy, six ships have been named in honor of 20th-century Navy chaplains, four of whom were killed in action. Two were awarded the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest military award. Others were awarded medals such as the Purple Heart, Silver Star, and Bronze Star.
Here are their ships and stories.
Father Aloysius Schmitt
On 28 June 1939, Acting Chaplain Schmitt, a lieutenant (junior grade), arrived at his first duty station, the battleship Oklahoma (BB-37). On 7 December 1941, she was moored in Pearl Harbor. When the Japanese launched their devastating surprise attack, he went to the ship’s sick bay to assist and comfort the injured and perform last rites, the final prayers for the dying. The ship was then hit by an aerial torpedo. Water started rapidly gushing into the hull. Not many crew members could find a way out of the sinking battleship, but Father Schmitt and a few others found a small porthole through which to escape.
Father Schmitt helped all the others through the porthole, but when he started to get out himself, he noticed more sailors arriving in the space behind him. He then pleaded with those outside the hull to push him back through to help the remaining sailors. He died in the tragic incident, but he had managed to save several men.
The USS Schmitt (DE-676/APD-76) was commissioned on 24 July 1943. She started World War II service on convoy duty in the frigid North Atlantic. As a destroyer escort, she was primarily designed for antisubmarine warfare. Following that, she was converted to a high-speed transport for landing Marines ashore and was assigned to the warmer Pacific theater.
The Schmitt was decommissioned in 1949 and placed in mothballs. In 1967, she was pulled out of reserve and transferred to the Republic of China (Taiwan) Navy where she became the ROCS Lung Shan. She was finally decommissioned and scrapped in 1976, giving her a life span of 34 years.
Reverend Thomas L. Kirkpatrick
Thomas Kirkpatrick became an acting chaplain in 1918 during World War I. After the war, he joined the crew of the battleship Utah (BB-31) and was appointed as Asian Fleet chaplain and assigned to Samoa and Chefoo, China. He reported for duty in the battleship Arizona (BB-39) on 13 September 1940. Promoted to captain on 1 July 1941, he was slated for retirement on 14 July, but graciously decided to hang on for one last assignment during the tense prewar period that was already being described as a “national emergency.” He had been on board for only 15 months when the Japanese attacked his ship at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. He died when Japanese bombs destroyed gun turrets I and II near where he was assisting wounded sailors. His body was never found, but divers later found a clock that he kept in his stateroom. It is now on display at the USS Arizona Memorial Museum built above the sunken ship at Pearl Harbor.
The USS Kirkpatrick (DE-318) was commissioned on 23 October 1943. She initially served on convoy duty to escort merchants safely from submarines and made a lot of trips to the British Isles. She was reclassified as a radar picket, a ship that detects incoming airplanes. She was decommissioned on 24 June 1960.
Reverend George S. Rentz
George Snavely Rentz graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary, and during his career as a chaplain he served on board the USS Florida (BB-30), Wright (AV-1), West Virginia (BB-48), Augusta (CA-31), and Houston (CA-30). Late on 28 February 1942, the Houston teamed up with the Australian cruiser Perth to resist a Japanese invasion of the Dutch East Indies. They were extremely outnumbered, but they fought bravely. During mid-watch the next day, the Houston was slowly sunk by a barrage of torpedo fire. Commander Rentz gave his life jacket to a wounded shipmate and swam away. His body was never found, but many think he either drowned or was captured.
The USS Rentz (FFG-46) was commissioned on 30 June 1984. She was the first U.S. ship to visit mainland China since 1949, conducting a port call at Qingdao in November 1986. In 1987 she was sent to the Persian Gulf to support Operation Earnest Will. There she escorted tankers carrying fuel. She was decommissioned in May 2014.
Father Joseph T. O’Callahan
Father O’Callahan was ordained to the Roman Catholic priesthood as a member of the Jesuit order in 1934. A professor of mathematics, philosophy, and physics, he served as a director of the mathematics department at the College of the Holy Cross from 1938 to 1940, the year he joined the Naval Reserve Chaplain Corps as a lieutenant (junior grade). In early March 1945 he was assigned to the USS Franklin (CV-13), a large aircraft carrier.
On 19 March, a Japanese plane attacked the Franklin with two bombs, which went through the flight deck to the hangar deck and exploded. The explosion ignited gas tanks and ammunition. O’Callahan helped everyone he could and said some last rites. Later he gathered a group of men to help cool off the magazines so the ship wouldn’t explode. For that action, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. O’Callahan returned to Holy Cross in the fall of 1948 as the head of the mathematics department. In 1956 he published a book about the attack, titled I Was Chaplain on the Franklin (Macmillan Co.).
The first ship sponsored by a nun, the USS O’Callahan (DE-1051/FF-1051) was commissioned on 13 July 1968. She was leased to Pakistan on 31 May 1989 but given back in 1994. The O’Callahan was decommissioned in August of that year and scrapped in Hong Kong.
Father Vincent Robert Capodanno
Catholic priest Vincent Capodanno, a lieutenant in the Chaplain Corps, was stationed with the San Diego-based 1st Marine Division, which deployed to Vietnam in 1966. During Operation Swift in Que Son Valley, on 4 September 1967, elements of his battalion encountered a unit of about 2,500 Viet Cong. The Marines were vastly outnumbered. During the battle, Capodanno went to the injured and dying to do as much as he could. Wounded in the face and hand, he went to help a fellow corpsman who was yards away from an enemy machine gun and was killed. He was buried with military honors. Later, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. In recent years, it has been proposed that he be canonized as a saint; in 2006 he was publicly declared a “Servant of God,” the first step toward canonization.
The USS Capodanno (DE-1093/FF-1093) was named for him. She was commissioned on 17 November 1973. An antisubmarine frigate, she is the only U.S. naval ship to be blessed by the Pope. On 30 July 1993, after 20 years of U.S. service, she was leased to the Turkish Navy.
Father John F. Laboon Jr.
John Laboon, a 1943 U.S. Naval Academy graduate, was a bold World War II submarine officer. While assigned to the submarine USS Peto (SS-265) he was awarded a Silver Star for personal heroism. (The Peto was named for a type of fish. All submarines were named for fish at that time.) He left the Navy shortly after World War II ended and became a Jesuit priest in 1946. In 1957, he returned as a Navy Reserve chaplain and was recalled to active duty in 1958.
Over the course of his 22 years as a U.S. Navy chaplain, he demonstrated his fearlessness on the battlefield with U.S. Marines in Vietnam. He was also—very fittingly—the first chaplain of the Polaris submarine program. Captain Laboon ended his career as fleet chaplain of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet. After he retired from the Navy, he returned to Maryland to oversee the building of a Jesuit-retreat facility within view of the U.S. Naval Academy. His final church assignment was as pastor of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez Church in Woodstock, Maryland, where he served until his death on 1 August 1988.
The USS Laboon (DDG-58) was commissioned several years later on 18 March 1995. She fired missiles at targets in Iraq during Operation Desert Strike, becoming the first destroyer of the Arleigh Burke class to launch Tomahawks in anger.
In 2012 the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was attacked by terrorists, and the ambassador was killed. The Laboon was sent to the waters off Libya in case missile strikes were needed, but they were not conducted. She is still in commission as a U.S. Navy warship.
These fearless chaplains served with integrity. Their namesake ships are truly ships of honor.
Another Notable ‘Chaplain’
Samuel Livermore does not appear as a chaplain in Navy registers and would not qualify as one in the modern Navy. Today he would be considered a lay leader. He spent most of his time in the service as a purser—a ship’s supply officer—but he appears in the 1813 muster roll of the frigate Chesapeake as “Acting Chaplain.” In his era, a chaplain did not have to be ordained clergy; that would not be required until the 1830s. Since chaplains often served as the captain’s secretary and schoolmaster for the midshipmen, many captains chose them for their worldly rather than spiritual abilities.
A Harvard graduate and practicing lawyer, Livermore was a friend of the Chesapeake’s captain, the famed James Lawrence. This placed him on the scene of one of the War of 1812’s most famous frigate battles, the fight between the Chesapeake and the HMS Shannon on 1 June 1813, in which a dying Lawrence is remembered as saying, “Don’t give up the ship!” As the British followed their captain, Phillip B. V. Broke, aboard the Chesapeake, Livermore either shot at Broke with his pistol or slashed him with his cutlass (accounts differ)—not typically behavior associated with a chaplain. While severely wounded, Broke survived; Livermore was taken captive, returned to America in a prisoner exchange, and served in other ships as a purser until he returned to practicing law in 1816.
The USS Livermore (DD-429) was commissioned on 7 October 1940, prior to the United States’ entry into World War II. She is therefore credited by some as the first ship to be named for a U.S. Navy chaplain. The Livermore served on neutrality patrol and convoy duty before the war. Then she supported the landings in French Morocco; Anzio, Italy; and southern France by providing antiaircraft protection, shore-bombardment support, and gunnery to minesweepers. After that, she went to the New York Navy Yard for overhaul, which was completed after Japan surrendered. Then she transferred to the Pacific and escorted transports carrying soldiers of the Army’s 98th Division for occupation duty in Japan. On return to the United States she was officially decommissioned but assigned to Naval Reserve training. She ran aground off Cape Cod in July 1949, was refloated, inactivated in Boston, and finally scrapped in 1961.