Ken Hartle was a mighty man made out of sturdy stuff, he was harder and stronger in character than the hard experiences thrown at him over the course of his long life.
Hartle was born in Bakersfield, CA in 1913. Before he was 10 years old he had already lost his mother, a brother and a sister to either illnesses or accidents. His father had not been in the picture from the time that Hartle was 3 years old, having been sent to a tuberculosis sanatorium. When his mother died, he and other siblings were sent to Los Angeles to live with relatives.
According to the Associated Press, he eventually would leave LA and hitchhike up to the San Francisco Bay Area where he found work at first as a prune picker. He would work many jobs there, including as a ranch hand and cook at mining camps or resorts.
Hartle seems to have led a charmed life as well. His son, Ken W, Hartle said his dad managed to “cheat death” on several occasions in his life, including being stabbed in the neck in a schoolyard fight, and being bitten by rattlesnakes and scorpions in the mining camps he worked at. He was once thrown from his car when it was struck by a truck.
He seems to have been like the proverbial Timex watch, he “took a lickin’ and kept on tickin’.” He took this charmed life with him when he entered the Navy too.
At the time Pearl Harbor was attacked, Hartle was working as a civilian ship-fitter at a Bay Area Navy yard. He tried to enlist at that time, but he was told he couldn’t because his civilian job was too critical to the war effort. He was finally able to join in 1943 and he entered the Seabees as a Navy diver. He was sent to Pearl Harbor and became involved in the very difficult and dangerous work of salvaging many of the 18 ships that had been damaged or sunk on that December day in 1941.
Hartle was a diver long before modern scuba diving equipment was invented. If you saw the movie “Men of Honor” with Cuba Gooding, Jr. playing the part of Carl Brashear, the first Black Navy diver, you will know the kind of equipment Hartle had to wear as he did his job. It was bulky, difficult to work in, and weighed 200 pounds.
His work involved towing away unexploded torpedoes and salvaging the sunken ships and planes in the harbor. But there was one other job he had as well. HIs son said that his father mostly avoided talking about this part of the job, even though he was a great storyteller and could go on with wonderful stories about his life for hours. You see, he was also responsible for helping to recover the long-submerged bodies of sailors who had gone down with their ships on that day. According to the AP, Hartle’s son said of his father, “He would only say that the hardest part of the job was ‘bringing up our boys.’”
Ken Hartle did not fight the enemy on the battlefields or at sea on a warship, but what he did for the nation and for his fellow fallen sailors and their families there at Pearl Harbor was as heroic and important a service as that of any of our WWII combat veterans. It demanded a toughness and a courage equal to that of the soldier or sailor in combat action. Hartle was just the man for that difficult and dangerous job.
Like the rest of his generation, he had been toughened by the experiences of the Depression and the war. When the war was over he settled back in California and became a chicken breeder in Valley Center in northern San Diego County. Hartle died this past week in Escondido, California. He was 103 years old.
The Veterans Site sends its condolences to the Hartle family. We wish also to offer our respect and thanks to Ken Hartle for being a man of character, a good and honorable Navy diver, and a beloved father to his children. We wish him now, “Fair Winds and Following Seas.”