A HERO among us

Ralph Laedtke served

The newest member of the Vancouver chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association is also a recent transplant from Illinois to Washougal.

Ralph Laedtke, 90, was serving on the USS Solace on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese launched a surprise attack against the U.S. Forces stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

The first wave of the attack – consisting of 183 fighters and torpedo bombers – struck at the fleet in Pearl Harbor as well as three airfields at 6 a.m. The second strike consisted of 167 aircraft, striking at the same targets at 7:15 a.m.

When it was over, the American losses involved 2,403 individuals killed in action. Another 1,178 were wounded. The USS Arizona and USS Oklahoma were total losses, along with 188 U.S. aircraft that were destroyed. Several battleships, cruisers and destroyers were damaged.

Laedtke remembers knowing that the Japanese were negotiating with the State Department.

“We knew things were getting tense, but we did not expect what was going to happen Dec. 7,” he said.

On that morning, Laedtke had planned to go to church. While he was in a washroom, he heard a “rat-a-tat-tat,” followed by an “all hands to quarters” announcement.

“Planes were dropping bombs” he said. “My heart was crushed to see this was happening.

“I knew there would be a lot of death,” he added. “My stomach ‘was on fire’ as I rushed to my office.”

Of the 150 patients that were on board the USS Solace at the time of the Japanese attacks, most were there for elective surgeries. After the bombings, a senior medical officer sent the patients back to their ships.

Part of Laedtke’s responsibilities included preparing Navy death certificates.

“Bodies were fished out of the water and stacked in the morgue,” he said. “Rigor mortis had set in. The skin was cooked.”

That resulted in 26 individuals being listed as unidentifiable, since fingerprints could not be made and military dog tags were not yet being used for identification purposes.

At the time of the attacks, “many were sleeping in undershorts,” Laedtke said. “There were very seriously burned patients.

“I did a lot of praying our ship would be spared,” he added.

After the bombings, the USS Solace had 150 new patients with fractures and burns. At night, Laedtke talked to them.

Two carriers that were not at Pearl Harbor during the bombings arrived two days later.

“The enlisted crew [on the USS Enterprise and the USS Saratoga] manned the flight deck, standing at attention,” Laedtke said. “It gave us such a lift, that all was not lost. “Thank God for that.”

He was 21 when World War II started.

“I really grew up on that ship,” Laedtke said. “It was a workhorse. It had more than 25,000 admissions. During the war, it had a favorable mortality rate. The doctors aboard that ship were the cream of the crop.”

The USS Solace contained 480 beds and five operating rooms. There were 40 officers on board, including 15 doctors and two dentists. It was known as “the great white ship of the Pacific.”

On the ship, Laedtke dictated letters from senior medical officers to the Surgeon General.

“I fell in love with that ship,” he said. “I had a wonderful adventure on it.”

In 1946, the USS Solace was sold to the Turkish Maritime Commission.

In 1991, Laedtke went aboard the USS Arizona Memorial and cried.

“Half of the crowd was Japanese,” he said. “A park ranger said ‘let us pass the peace.'”

Laedtke enlisted in the Navy on Oct. 3, 1939 and retired 35 years later.

He wants younger generations to remember Pearl Harbor.

“We want to keep this alive and not relax our guard, like we did and got caught in 1941,” Laedtke said.

These days, he has concerns about military and security issues in North Korea, Iran and Israel.

“Al-Qaeda is trying very hard to damage us,” Laedtke said. ” It is trying to kill our people. We have good intelligence. We have to be very vigilant.”

He maintains a database of individuals who served aboard the USS Solace. Laedtke plans to host a reunion in this area next fall.

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