At age 95, Edward Wentzlaff is, in time and distance, far removed from the teak deck of the battleship Arizona, where he was standing on that now-infamous cloudless Sunday morning in Pearl Harbor 71 years ago Friday.
But in his tack-sharp memory, the sounds, smells, horrific sights -- and the concussion from the blast of a Japanese bomb that ignited the ship's ammunition magazine, killing 1,177 of his comrades -- remain vivid and haunting.
Only a pause, then a split-second decision to go to his battle station instead of following other sailors fleeing the airborne carnage below decks saved his life. He was one of 335 Arizona survivors, and one of about a dozen still living -- the only survivor in Minnesota.
"Everybody went down that ladder but me. I don't know why or what made me change my mind -- I've never known," he said. "But every one of them got killed."
The Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor killed more than 2,400 Americans, stirring an angered nation from its ambivalence about entering World War II. Nine battleships docked in a neat row, with the Arizona second from the end, rested serenely on the southeast shore of Ford Island in the harbor; aircraft were lined up on the island's airfield and at nearby installations. The attack's surprise, and devastation, were nearly complete.
That's history, and it's important. But for combat veterans like Wentzlaff, the war was personal. As painful as it has been to relive that day for the past seven decades, he has felt duty-bound to bear witness to that history, and to its terrible personal cost.
"I was on that ship for 2 1/2 years. I can't say any real friends survived," he said. "It was a wonderful ship, and we had a great crew."
Wentzlaff was a farm kid growing up in a big family near Nicollet, in southern Minnesota, in the depths of the Depression. At 20, he was restless -- "I've always been kind of driven," he said -- and the $35 he earned monthly as a farmhand seemed to offer no future. "It wasn't working well, so one day I up and enlisted."
That was on Dec. 8, 1937 -- his four-year enlistment was to expire in 1941. After training at Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago, he was off to San Diego for eight months of ordnance training. "I was enamored with torpedoes. When I graduated, I put in for submarine [service]. They decided to put me on a battleship," he said, chuckling. "They always screwed it up for you."
On the Arizona, he was an aviation ordnance mate, in charge of weapons for the ship's three OS2U Kingfisher aircraft. The catapult-launched floatplanes were used for scouting, but had machine guns and bombs.
As that Sunday dawned, Wentzlaff was daydreaming of his last day in the Navy. Two friends from Nicollet who had also enlisted were going to drop by.
"We always got up early because we were always short of hot water, you know? So we got up early, showered and went up to Turret Two near the fo'c'sle," he said, referring to a set of the ship's massive 14-inch guns that were second from the bow. "There's about a dozen of us waiting for church to start. Church is at 8, and we're standing there, visiting. Beautiful day, just gorgeous.
"I look up and ... I see an airplane making a U-turn. Jeez, it had a big red ball on the side -- for a while I couldn't master that -- I didn't know what it was. But the rotten bastard came along the side, strafing us with machine guns."
As bombs and torpedoes rained down and machine gun bullets bit into the wooden deck, sailors were told to go below, where it was thought to be safe. Instead, Wentzlaff went to his battle station up on the quarterdeck.
In the chaos and carnage, he grabbed a comrade and began trying to train a hose on a fire near Turret Three, second from the ship's stern. "Then -- boom -- the ship went up," he said. The blast obliterated part of the ship and killed most of the sailors instantly.
Sailors emerged from Turret Three. "They were yelling, 'Abandon ship! Abandon ship!' I'm standing there like an idiot," Wentzlaff said. "This guy grabbed me by the arm and he said, 'Let's go!'" But oil in the water was sending flames high into the air. "I said, 'I ain't jumping in there.'"
Instead, he and another sailor ran down a gangway to Adm. Isaac Kidd's (who died in the attack) barge moored along the ship. "But the ship was sinking and pulling that under," Wentzlaff said. "I told him, 'You get that [barge] started, and I'll get it loose.'" But his knife was useless against the 3-inch lines. "The ship was pulling the damn boat underneath. So I went in back and [the admiral] had a flagstaff with his designation on it. It was real sharp, and I just chopped the holy hell out of those lines."
The pair began picking up survivors, most of them hideously burned. "All they had on was the bands from their skivvies and the tops of their shoes ... no hair, nothing," he said. "The hospital ship was about half a mile away, but I can't believe any of them lived." The smell of burning flesh hung in the harbor for days, he said.
Wentzlaff's plans to head home literally went up in smoke. But history wasn't quite through with him.
June 1942 found him aboard the aircraft carrier Yorktown in the Battle of Midway. It was a decisive American victory in the Pacific, but the Yorktown was sunk by Japanese bombs. He was among hundreds who abandoned ship before being picked up by an American cruiser.
Wentzlaff was sent to an antisubmarine squadron back on Ford Island, then to Chincoteague, Va., to finish out the war. He left the Navy in 1946 as a chief warrant officer, then made his way back to southern Minnesota near Butterfield, where he married, farmed and had five children. He served as Butterfield mayor and Watonwan County Board member.
About 10 times, he has returned to Pearl Harbor, to the graceful white memorial that rests over the rusting hulk of the Arizona. He plans to be interred there -- an honor reserved for crew members.
"I think about those guys," he said. "I was there. You just did what you had to do."
Jim Anderson • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @StribJAnderson