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Oldest Pearl Harbor Navy Salvage Diver Dies At 103

January 30, 2017

The Navy’s oldest Pearl Harbor salvage diver, Ken Hartle, died at the age of 103 last Tuesday.

Hartle died at an Escondido, California, center for people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

Hartle and other Navy Seabees were tasked with towing away unexploded Japanese torpedoes and raising sunken ships and planes as well as retrieving the bodies of sailors that were trapped underwater when their ships were sank by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

He suffered the bends — painful and dangerous bubbles in his bloodstream from improper decompression — and was almost killed when an anchor cracked and metal shards sprayed out. He didn’t have an issue telling stories to his children about the war, but one story he did not like to talk about was bringing up the bodies of sailors who were stuck at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.

“He just didn’t like talking about it,” his son, Ken W. Hartle told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “He would only say that the hardest part of the job was ‘bringing up our boys.'”

During his time with the Seabees, when recovering the bodies, he had to wear equipment that weighed more than 200 pounds. He worked as a civilian ship-fitter at a Navy yard in the San Francisco Bay Area when the war started, but couldn’t enlist until 1943 because his job was deemed to be too important to the war effort. When the Navy put out a call for experienced construction workers and ship-fitters, he enlisted. He then volunteered for the diving opportunity when training as a shipwright.

Hartle spent two years in the Navy, but those two years had a huge impact on his life.

“He was from a generation of people who were amazingly tough,” said his daughter, Karen Dahl. “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 down in Buena Park, California and then became a chicken breeder in Valley Center in northern San Diego County.

“He was a great storyteller. He could talk for hours about his life in the most amazing detail,” Dahl said. “He loved his life and he had a wonderful one.”