By Pam Kragen
In his 103 years of life, Valley Center resident Ken Hartle was a chicken breeder, a ship-fitter, a prune-picker and a resort chef. But nothing made him prouder than the work he did in World War II, which made him — until his death on Tuesday — the Navy’s oldest surviving Pearl Harbor salvage diver.
Besides towing away unexploded Japanese torpedoes and raising sunken ships and planes, Hartle and his fellow Navy Seabees were often given the somber duty of bringing up the long-submerged bodies of sailors trapped underwater when their ships sank during the Japanese attack on Dec. 7, 1941.
Hartle’s adult children say their father loved telling stories from his early life, but the body-raising responsibility was a topic he avoided.
“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.’ ”
David Ball, an officer with the national Navy Divers Association, said he’s pretty certain that Hartle was the oldest Navy diver from the Pearl Harbor salvage era. The World War II salvage divers held regular reunions for many years, but as more and more passed away, the gatherings stopped. At this point, the oldest divers in the association are in their 90s, said Ball, a San Diego resident.
Hartle passed away Tuesday afternoon at the Vista Del Lago memory care center in Escondido. For the past month, he had hoped to tell his story to the San Diego Union-Tribune, but rapidly declining health made an interview impossible. Instead, just three hours before he died, his son and daughter, Karen Dahl, 66, sat by his bedside with a reporter and shared his favorite stories, photos and keepsakes.
Hartle’s last public outing was on Veterans Day, when he attended memorial services at Webb Park in Rancho Bernardo. Over the years, he was a regular presence at local patriotic parades and ceremonies, where he often showed up wearing a hat or T-shirt emblazoned with the words “U.S. Navy Salvage Diver” in big block letters.