Possibly the last Minnesota survivor of the USS Arizona battleship from the infamous Pearl Harbor bombing attack has died and will be interred in the ship where 1,177 Marines and sailors died that morning.
Edward Wentzlaff, who farmed near Milaca most of his life, had revisited Pearl Harbor at least 10 times and spent a lifetime fighting the haunting memories of fires, screams and rocking explosions.
“Every time I go there I look back and feel worse,” he said at an observance in St. Paul four years ago.
Wentzlaff, 95, died Tuesday at the VA Medical Center in St. Cloud of bladder cancer. Somehow, he had survived strafing, bombing and oil fires that began as he stood in the open on the battleship’s forward deck when the attack began on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.
“He didn’t want people to ever forget that it happened,” said his daughter, Mary Flock of Milaca. “He said it was such a horrific thing for another country to do. He never forgave them [the Japanese] for what they did. He lost all of his friends that day, and he said, ‘They tried to kill me. Why would I forgive them?’ ”
Wentzlaff was waiting for a Sunday church service to begin when the first warplanes screamed out of the sky. He attributed his survival to a split-second decision to run to his battle station rather than fleeing the attack below deck. A bomb that hit an ammunition magazine sank the Arizona, accounting for nearly half of all Americans killed at Pearl Harbor.
“Some moments are too ghastly to remember,” Wentzlaff said four years ago. “Some are so horrible that they defy forgetting. I put that day at Pearl Harbor in that last category.”
Only a few Pearl Harbor veterans remain in Minnesota, but Richard Thill, who served on the USS Ward, said it’s impossible to know how many because veterans needing nursing care are often relocated. Wentzlaff thought he was the only Minnesota survivor of the USS Arizona, his daughter said, but he never was sure because of the likelihood that some men wouldn’t talk about the experience.
Two years ago, Flock traveled with her father to a Pearl Harbor ceremony attended by only 10 USS Arizona survivors. “That was the only time I saw him cry,” she said. Wentzlaff was born in 1917 in Nicollet, Minn. He joined the U.S. Navy on Dec. 8, 1937, and after Pearl Harbor he was honorably discharged as a chief warrant officer and was a lifetime member of the USS Arizona Society.
In civilian life he served as PTA president, school board member and mayor of Butterfield, Minn.; commander and lifetime member of VFW Post No. 9607 in Butterfield; Watonwan County commissioner and Milaca Legion member. Because he was aboard the USS Arizona when it was attacked, he qualifies for a rare honor — Navy divers will inter the urn containing his remains on the sunken ship on Dec. 7, the 72nd anniversary of the attack.
In 1947, he married Alice Mork. They divorced and she died in 2011. In addition to Flock, survivors include his other children, Judith Atkinson of Milaca, Steven Wentzlaff and Peter Wentzlaff of Butterfield, and Paul Wentzlaff of Yankton, S.D.; sisters, Eunice Ranweiler of St. Cloud, Virginia Christle of Brainerd, Geraldine Leonard of Nicollet, and Shirley Peterson of Woodbury; brother, Bob Wentzlaff, Yankton.; seven grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren.
Services will be held Saturday at 10:30 a.m. at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Milaca. Visitation will be Friday from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Sturm Funeral Home in St. James, Minn., and one hour before services at the church.