Off Beat: Men whose paths crossed at Pearl Harbor shared county link

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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Richard “Swede” Artley would have enjoyed trading Pearl Harbor stories with Ralph Laedtke: particularly the one about the shot of whiskey.

They certainly had different perspectives on Dec. 7, 1941. Laedtke was a crewman on the hospital ship USS Solace. Artley spent 1[ ] days entombed in a capsized battleship.

Their time in Clark County did not overlap. Laedtke and his wife moved to Washougal in 2010, long after Artley and his wife left Vancouver.

But their lives did intersect 70 years ago. In a Dec. 7 story, Laedtke told The Columbian how men from his ship were part of the effort to rescue sailors trapped below decks when the USS Oklahoma rolled over.

An obituary that ran in The Columbian after Artley’s death in Idaho on Oct. 18 provided the connection: “Swede and 31 others were trapped inside the hull for almost 36 hours before being rescued. … At the time of his death, Swede was the last survivor of the 32 ‘cut-outs’ from the Oklahoma.”

Artley gave an account to a Pearl Harbor survivors’ group that can be found online. When the ship turned over, he said, water poured through a 36-inch-wide air duct. After 10 minutes, the lights went out.

“You can’t imagine how black it was,” the 1940 Woodland High School graduate said. “We tried to stop the water coming through that vent. We pushed a mattress against it, opened lockers and found anything we could to keep the water out.”

Finally, the trapped men heard knocking and pounding as rescuers used cutting torches and drills to reach them.

A well-deserved drink

When rescuers got to them, 98 percent of the compartment was flooded. Artley’s older brother Daryle was among those killed on the Oklahoma, and Swede figured he’d have been dead himself within 15 minutes if he hadn’t been rescued by then.

The 32 survivors were taken to the USS Solace — Laedtke’s hospital ship — where an officer asked if anyone was hurt.

“I told him I had a bad cut on my knee. Then he asked us if we’d like to have a drink. That just about floored us,” Artley said.

After the officer pulled a glass and a bottle of whiskey from a desk drawer, “We lined up and each took a stiff drink out of the same glass,” Artley recalled.

One man said, “Thanks, but I don’t drink.” The next sailor in line piped up and said, “By God, I do. I’ll take his, too.”

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.