VALLEY CENTER, California — In his 103 years of life, Valley Center resident Ken Hartle was a chicken breeder, a shipfitter, 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 often were 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.

Even though he spent just two years in the Navy, those experiences — exciting, crucial to the war effort and extremely dangerous — left an indelible mark on his life, said Dahl, his longtime caregiver.

“He was from a generation of people who were amazingly tough,” she said. “He had a lot of problems with pain from the work he did in his younger life, but he never complained.”

Hartle’s son, Ken, said his father overcame several childhood tragedies and defied death so many times that he claimed he’d been living on borrowed time since age of 3. That’s when a mule kicked him in the face and knocked him unconscious for 20 hours.

Born in Bakersfield in 1913, Ambert Kenneth Hartle grew up tough. Before he turned 10, he’d lost his mother, a brother and a sister to illness and accidents, and he juggled grade school with two jobs delivering milk and chopping firewood for the town’s one-room schoolhouse.

When his widowed father was sent to a tuberculosis sanitorium in 1916, Hartle and his surviving siblings were sent to Los Angeles to live with family. Within a year, he quit school and hitchhiked to the Bay area where he worked for a few years picking prunes, clearing poison oak and working as a ranch-hand. He earned his high school diploma and studied commercial art at the College of Marine in Marin County, where he was a multisport athlete and managed the basketball team. Later, he worked as a cook for mining camps and resorts.

Hartle’s children say he lived “nine lives” because he always managed to stay a step ahead of the Grim Reaper. Among his many close calls: He was stabbed in the neck during a schoolyard brawl at age 9; he was bitten by a rattlesnake and a scorpion while working alone in a remote mining camp; he was thrown several hundred feet from his car when it was crushed by a truck during his college days; he beat colon and prostate cancer; had six heart bypass surgeries; and he broke his shoulder in a fall from a ladder while trimming trees at age 97.

But the most dangerous time of his life was when he was a diver for the Naval Construction Battalions (known as the CBs, or “Seabees”) during the war.

Hartle was married with a daughter, and working as a civilian shipfitter at a Navy yard in Vallejo, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. He wanted to join the Navy immediately but his class of work was deemed too important to the war effort so his supervisor held him back. Finally in 1943, he was able to enlist when the Navy put out a call for experienced construction workers and shipfitters to repair the fleet damaged in sea battles. While in training as a shipwright, he heard about the diving opportunity and volunteered.

Most of the 101 ships in Pearl Harbor were damaged during the Japanese air raid and some sank to the bottom of the harbor, blocking the channel to sea. In 1942 and 1943, Navy divers worked to repair, salvage, raise and dismantle the ships and planes, spending a combined 16,000 hours underwater during 4,000 dives, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Ball said that Hartle and divers of his era worked under extremely hazardous conditions. In the pre-SCUBA era, they dove in uninsulated canvas suits with 200-pound spun copper helmets and external hoses that pumped compressed air to them below the water.

Among the challenges they faced were getting snagged and trapped in the wreckage while digging underwater tunnels through the debris, gas embolisms from surfacing too quickly without exhaling, the bends (air bubbles in the bloodstream) from improper decompression and attacks by barracudas and eels, said Ball, who was part of the Navy Harbor Clearance No. 1 salvage team during the Vietnam War.

After the Pearl Harbor work was complete, Hartle continued with Navy salvage dives from Maine to the Philippines until he left the service in December 1945. During those years, he battled fish attacks, the bends, a back injury and a near-fatal encounter when a ship’s iron anchor chain, which cracked and sprayed shrapnel all around him (he escaped with just a small metal shard in one eye).

After the war, he married a second time (his first marriage didn’t survive his deployment) to Kathryn Jeanne Hartle and they settled in Buena Park and had three children, Karen, Ken W. and Kathryn.

Eventually he became a poultry rancher, specializing in the breeding of Leghorn chicks that he shipped worldwide. The family moved the ranch to Valley Center in 1962, where he continued working until he retired in his 80s. His wife, Jeanne, died in 2008.

Dahl said her dad began experiencing memory loss last year, so she moved him into the Vista Del Lago center.

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

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