SAN DIEGO — Ken Hartle, who as a Navy diver during World War II had the grim task of retrieving bodies from ships sunk by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, has died. He was 103.
Hartle died Tuesday afternoon at an Escondido, California, center for people with Alzheimer's disease or dementia, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported Friday. A reporter was at his bedside with Hartle's son and daughter three hours before his death.
Hartle may have been the oldest surviving Pearl Harbor salvage diver, said David Ball of San Diego, an officer with the Navy Divers Association.
Hartle and his fellow Seabees worked in the days before scuba diving equipment was commonplace. His heavy canvas diving suit and brass helmet weighed more than 200 pounds.
Japan's Dec. 7, 1941 surprise attack on Pearl Harbor sank or beached 18 ships. Among them was the battleship Arizona, which went down with 1,177 crew members.
Hartle was working as a civilian ship-fitter at a Navy yard in the San Francisco Bay Area when the war broke out but he wasn't allowed to enlist until 1943 because his job was deemed too important to the war effort.
Hartle was proud of the work he performed over the next two years, his children said. He risked death by towing away unexploded torpedoes and salvaging ships and planes, first at Pearl Harbor and later from Maine to the Philippines.
He suffered the bends — painful and dangerous bubbles in his bloodstream from improper decompression — and was nearly killed when an anchor chain cracked and spewed metal shards.
But he avoided mentioning one task: recovering the long-submerged bodies of sailors who went to the bottom at Pearl Harbor.
"He just didn't like talking about it," said his son, Ken W. Hartle, 64, of Montana. "He would only say that the hardest part of the job was 'bringing up our boys.' "
Ambert Kenneth Hartle was born in 1913 in Bakersfield, California. His mother, a brother and a sister died from illness or accidents before he was 10 and his father was sent to a tuberculosis sanitarium in 1916, according to Hartle's children.
Hartle and his siblings were sent to Los Angeles to live with relatives but he hitchhiked to the San Francisco Bay Area. He worked as a prune-picker, a ranch hand and a cook for mining camps and resorts, earned a high school diploma and studied commercial art in college, where he also managed the basketball team.
His son said Hartle managed to cheat death several times, beginning at age 3 when a mule kicked him in the face and knocked him unconscious for 20 hours.
At 9, he was stabbed in the neck during a schoolyard brawl. In college, he was flung hundreds of feet when his car was crushed by a truck. He was bitten by a rattlesnake and a scorpion while working alone at a mining camp.
He had colon and prostate cancer, six heart bypass surgeries, and broke his shoulder falling from a ladder while trimming trees when he was 97.
"He was from a generation of people who were amazingly tough," said his daughter and longtime caregiver, Karen Dahl, 66. "He had a lot of problems with pain from the work he did in his younger life, but he never complained."
After the war, he settled in Buena Park, California, and later became a chicken breeder in Valley Center in northern San Diego County.
His second wife, Jeanne, died in 2008.
"He was a great storyteller. He could talk for hours about his life in the most amazing detail," his daughter said. "He loved his life and he had a wonderful one."