WWII salvage diver, 100, recalls Seabee days
KALISPELL, Mont. — On a grassy hilltop off McMannamy Draw, Ken Hartle spent his 100th birthday Thursday just as he had seen it in his dreams several years ago, surrounded by family with his great-grandchildren holding a festive poster declaring well wishes for “Papa.”
The spry centenarian traveled from his home in Valley Center, Calif., to spend his special day at the home of his son and daughter-in-law, Ken and Debbie Hartle of the West Valley area. The younger Ken Hartle has owned and operated Heritage Hearths Masonry and Castworks in Kalispell since 1977 and Debbie teaches at West Valley School.
Family members poured in from everywhere for the celebration.
It was a time to reminisce a century of living. Invariably, Hartle’s memories float back to World War II when he risked his life time and time again as a salvage diver with the U.S. Navy.
At 100, Hartle is among the last of those wartime “Seabees.” He enlisted in the Navy Aug. 7, 1943 — almost 70 years ago to the day — just a day before his 30th birthday.
He was working as a shipfitter on the California coast when the call went out for divers. His employer was reluctant to let Hartle go, so Hartle orchestrated a few extended camping trips to show his boss he really could get along without him. Finally he got the OK to enlist in the Navy.
Hartle had been scuba-diving a couple of times with his buddies near the Golden Gate Bridge and was intrigued with the idea of doing more of it.
Learning to multitask underwater, in the dark, in short periods of time, proved to be challenging.
“They’d send a guy down with a bucket of bolts,” Hartle recalled. “It was dark down there. When they came to me, they gave me six boards, 1-by-6’s about two-and-a-half feet long, and a piece of rope with nails stuck in it.”
Working underwater with wood that wanted to float to the surface was difficult.
“The whole idea was to be able to do two to three things at the same time,” he said.
In those days the diving gear was enormously heavy. Hartle’s suit weighed just over 216 pounds as he slipped it over his 174-pound frame.
Hartle completed his salvage diving training in New York, then headed down the East Coast, through the Panama Canal and eventually wound up at Pearl Harbor where he got in on the tail end of the salvage efforts.
“When the Japanese dropped their bombs and torpedoes, a lot of them hadn’t been detonated, so we had to get those out of there,” he recalled, noting the dangerous nature of his work.
According to the Northwest Diving History Association, during the Pearl Harbor salvage operations, Navy divers spent about 16,000 hours under water performing some 4,000 dives. Contract civilian divers contributed another 4,000 diving hours to the effort.
Divers with the Naval Construction Battalions were nicknamed Seabees from the first letters Construction Battalion — C.B. By the end of World War II, 325,000 men had enlisted as Seabees.
During a 2010 interview with his hometown newspaper, the Valley Road Runner, Hartle confided the somber nature of the work not only at Pearl Harbor but in other areas the war touched. He vividly remembers time spent on Eniwetok Atoll, a Pacific island where American forces took on a weeklong battle to commandeer the strategic island.
“We’d bring up ships and planes and get them back into commission to help out during the war effort,” Hartle told the Road Runner. “But a lot of times, we were going in to bring back the bodies of our boys.”
As a Diver First Class, Hartle was allowed to dive up to 150 feet, but it wasn’t unusual for him to plunge to much lower depths, as deep as 268 feet.
He paid the price for those deep dives.
“I went deeper than I should have and I was in the hospital a few times,” Hartle said.
After Hartle’s military service, he wound up in the hospital again for back surgery. He was offered a job managing a poultry ranch, doing light managerial tasks until he recovered from the surgery.
Hartle took the job and never dove again, even though he had a lucrative job offer later that involved diving for seaweed to be used in various commercial products.
Several years later, he and his second wife Jean, opened their own chicken ranch, moving with their three children — Karen, Kenny and Kathy — to the Valley Center, Calif., area.
Beyond the dangers of being a salvage diver, Hartle has survived all kinds of scrapes with death. He was kicked in the face by a mule when he was 3, lingering in an unconscious state for 20 hours before pulling through.
When he was working as a cook for a mining camp during the Great Depression, a rattlesnake bit him in the leg. Everyone else had gone into town, so he split open the bite mark with a knife and sucked out as much venom as he could. A few weeks later a scorpion got him in the arm, and Hartle remembers that being much more painful than the snake bite.
During the war he had another close call when an inexperienced ship captain ordered both four-ton anchors to be raised at the same time. When one of the cast-iron chains snapped, it sent a piece of metal into Hartle’s eye.
“I’ve been living on borrowed time since I was 3,” Hartle likes to remind his family.
On Independence Day this year, volunteers with the Quilts of Valor Foundation honored Hartle with a special ceremony on July 4 and presented him with one of their signature quilts given to veterans for their service.
Hartle was surprised to hear from one of his friends that he’d been featured in a TV segment featuring the ceremony.
And he got celebrity status on the airplane that flew him, accompanied by his daughter Karen, from California to Montana last week for his 100th birthday. Once the pilot got wind of Hartle’s wartime service and his longevity, it was announced to the rest of the passengers, and well wishes abounded.
“Everyone was wanting to shake my hand, and one lady even bought me a drink,” he said with a smile.