America suffered its first fatalities of World War II on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. A few hours later, Ralph Laedtke was working to get some of those victims back to their families.
Seventy years later, the former sailor still swallows hard when he describes one aspect of his day aboard a Navy hospital ship: bodies so badly burned they couldn’t be identified.
And he still vividly remembers the start of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, at about 7:55 a.m. that Sunday.
If you go
• What: Pearl Harbor commemoration (open to the public).
■ When: 10 a.m. Wednesday.
■ Where: Centennial Center, Red Lion Hotel Vancouver at The Quay, 100 Columbia St.
■ Museum display: Pearl Harbor exhibit at Veterans Museum, Building 1819, on the VA campus, 1601 E. Fourth Plain Blvd.
“I was dressed and ready to go to church,” the Washougal resident said earlier this week. “I heard a rat-a-tat, and thought somebody was tapping on the bulkhead.”
It was anti-aircraft fire from American ships that were under attack; the crew of the USS Solace was called to battle stations.
The hospital ship was not attacked. But as Laedtke climbed an outside ladder to his post, “I could see Battleship Row,” he said. “Battleships were taking bomb hits.
“A bomb hit the Arizona, and all hell broke loose,” Laedtke said. “The sight set my belly on fire. I knew there had to be a tremendous number of casualties.”
Laedtke (pronounced “lad-key”) was a pharmacist’s mate/medical records technician. His immediate job was to help clear space for battle casualties. Doctors started moving out nonemergency cases — patients awaiting surgery for things like hernias or tonsil problems.
“If it was something that could be postponed, they went back to their ships,” Laedtke said.
Did you know?
• 2,390 Americans died in the attack at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, including 1,177 sailors and Marines who died on the USS Arizona.
He went to work updating records and medical histories so beds would be available for casualties. Rescue crews were dispatched from the Solace in motor launches and they started bringing back wounded from several ships, including the Arizona.
“They kept streaming in,” he said. “If they could walk, they were treated and sent back.”
But many came in with burns and fractures, he said.
“Earlier in the year, the Navy authorized wearing shorts, so there were some very serious burns,” Laedtke said.
More than 70 percent of the wounded admitted to the Solace were burn cases, according to a U.S. Navy account of the attack.
That became a factor in Laedtke’s next assignment.
Assigned to morgue
“Late in the afternoon, I was sent to the morgue. I had to prepare death certificates,” he said.
The process included taking fingerprints to help identify victims who weren’t wearing ID tags.
“When I got ready to do the first print, the flesh came off,” Laedtke said. “Twenty-six men had ‘Burned beyond recognition’ listed on their death certificates. It still tears at my heart today, 70 years later.
“That was a long day,” Laedtke said.
There was another alarm before the day was over.
“It was almost midnight when general quarters sounded again. This was much better news,” he said. “It was an incoming flight of B-17s.”
The flight of American bombers was followed a couple of days later by more reinforcements, the U.S. Navy aircraft carriers Enterprise and Lexington.
“As badly as we felt on Dec. 7, to see them come in unharmed restored out confidence,” the 91-year-old veteran said. “We were pretty bleak after the attack. We were hit hard.”
Several of his shipmates were involved in a notable rescue effort. The USS Oklahoma had capsized, trapping some of the crew inside the hull. Laedtke said the Solace’s damage control officer and three or four shipfitters were part of the rescue party that spent 36 hours burning through the capsized hull of the battleship; 32 men were rescued.
The Solace went to sea in March 1942 and provided medical care for troops who were wounded in several milestone battles in the Pacific.
The end of the war wasn’t the end of Laedtke’s Navy career, however. He spent 35 years in the service, and helped prepare Navy corpsmen for duty in the Vietnam War. He retired as a captain in 1974.
Laedtke will be the featured speaker at this year’s annual Pearl Harbor commemoration, 10 a.m. in the Centennial Center, Red Lion Hotel Vancouver at The Quay, 100 Columbia St.
There also is a new Dec. 7 event this year. A display in Vancouver’s Veterans Museum will highlight local people with connections to the attack on Pearl Harbor. The museum opened in September on the Vancouver Veterans Affairs campus, northwest of the county’s Center for Community Health.
Artifacts include a ribbon from the Medal of Honor awarded to Donald Ross — father of Vancouver’s Penny Ross — for his actions on the battleship USS Nevada; a watch that was salvaged from the wreckage of the battleship USS West Virginia and returned to its owner, who survived World War II; and a captured photograph taken from one of the lead Japanese attack aircraft just moments before the attack.
The Veterans Museum is in Building 1819, on the VA campus, 1601 E. Fourth Plain Blvd.; it is next to a “Huey” helicopter that is part of a Vietnam veterans memorial. The display is open on Pearl Harbor Day from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The Pearl Harbor exhibit will be on display through December. Normal museum hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursdays; noon to 4 p.m. Fridays; and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Call 360-737-1441 for information.