Ken Swedberg worked 36 years for the St. Paul waterworks, but his claim to fame was being on the USS Ward when it fired the first American shots in World War II. It sank a Japanese mini-sub in the mouth of Pearl Harbor.

Swedberg, 89, was president of the First Shot Naval Veterans when he died July 11 of lung cancer in a Maplewood hospital.

"Ken was really a No. 1 guy. If you wanted a buddy or friend, you'd pick him," said First Shot pal Dick Thill, 86, of St. Paul. "He was very intelligent and easy to get along with but he knew his stuff."

Only about a dozen of the 84 men on the USS Ward the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, are still alive, Thill said. They were part of the 47th Division of the Naval Reserve from St. Paul. Their destroyer was patrolling the mouth of Pearl Harbor that Sunday morning and sank the sub an hour before the sneak air attack that killed 2,000 U.S. servicemen. The two-torpedo sub and four others like it planned to fire at U.S. ships in the harbor.

But doubt about the sinking lingered for 60 years until the mini-sub was found in August 2002. University of Hawaii researchers recorded an underwater video that showed a hole in the sub's conning tower, right where Swedberg and other Ward crew members saw it hit, Thill said.

"We've proven to the world that the Ward did sink that sub," Swedberg said in a September 2002 Star Tribune article.

Swedberg was a fireman whose primary job was to keep the Ward's steam boilers cooking to power the ship. But he was on deck that morning manning a flare gun. He told Thill he saw the sub surface about 150 feet away shortly before 7 a.m. The Ward's first shot missed. But the second, 4-inch shell sent the secret sub to the bottom, said Thill, a gunner.

Just over an hour later chaos reigned as hundreds of Japanese planes flew overhead, attacking the naval base at Pearl Harbor and nearby air bases.

Swedberg was dedicated to preserving the memory of the Ward's role in the Pearl Harbor attack that drew the United States into the war, said Ken Bodin, his son-in-law. He gave talks to veterans clubs and helped bring the 16-foot-long cannon that sank the sub to the Veterans Services Building on the Minnesota State Capitol grounds, Bodin and Thill said.

Swedberg died of mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos exposure, Bodin said. On the Ward, and later as a power engineer at St. Paul waterworks, Swedberg worked around water pipes insulated with asbestos, Bodin said. He said Swedberg studied power engineering after the war at Dunwoody Institute in Minneapolis. He worked his way up over 36 years to be chief engineer and pumping supervisor. He retired in 1984.

Swedberg outlived three wives. He is survived by children Brian, of Toms River, N.J.; Nancy Holt, of White Bear Lake; and Debbie Bodin, of Payson, Ariz.; six grandchildren and two great grandchildren. Services have been held.

Jim Adams • 612-673-7658