by Jay Grammond
Special to the Star News
“This will probably be my last one,” 93-year-old Navy veteran Ed Wentzlaff of Milaca told the crowd that gathered April 28 at Handke Center in Elk River. He was talking about speaking engagements like this one for the James C. Church World War II History Series that Community Education has been organizing for the past five years. Wentzlaff went on to say that he had been telling this story for 50 years and he felt like he was starting to forget things and that he just didn’t have the energy any more.
Those in the audience were treated to a very special evening, especially if it was going to be truly his last talk. There really wasn’t any hint that he was forgetting details; on the contrary, it was impressive that he remembered in the fine detail that he did. It was wonderful to watch his face light up as he recalled and related to us some humorous story from those days. It was like you could see that in his mind — Wentzlaff was right back in 1941.
“It was a fantastic day, about 87, I don’t think there was a cloud in the sky,” the Navy veteran began his story of that day on Dec. 7. Using big sweeping motions with his arm, Wentzlaff showed what it looked like as he looked out across the ship and saw the plane swinging around to make a run at them. He described in detail about how the wooden deck of the ship was splintering with pieces flying all over, they were being strafed. He went on to describe the chaos that ensued after they got bombed. “So much fire and so much dust, you couldn’t see anything.” Wentzlaff went into action trying to get off the burning ship, and in the meantime loading burn victims into a boat and getting them off the ship as well. Wentzlaff then was sent around the area to search for survivors, which led him on board the U.S.S. West Virginia, which was beginning to roll over from having been torpedoed. By dusk of that fateful day, they had established a defensive position of sorts around a hangar. Suddenly some planes flew past and they were all shot down. It was only after that they realized that they weren’t Japanese planes but American planes that hadn’t been notified of what had just gone on at Pearl Harbor. A lot of the confusion was due to the fact that something like 90 percent of the officers were killed in the attack.
Wentzlaff then went on to talk some about his experiences at the Battle of Midway, where he was on board the U.S.S. Yorktown which was sunk. Wentzlaff told the audience, including some Salk Middle School students from Ron Hustvedt’s history class, that he has been back to Pearl Harbor 10 times for reunions. The 11th time will be for his burial on the Arizona, a special opportunity reserved only for those survivors who were on board the Arizona when it was hit.
“It was a real honor to hear this story from someone who was there and lived through it,’ one audience member said. “Maybe it was the last time anyone will hear the story in such depth and with such emotion.”
One fact that makes the story even more incredible is that Wentzlaff was scheduled to serve the last day of his three-year enlistment on Dec. 8, 1941.
Watch for the summer line up of World War II History Series speakers in the brochure that comes out with the Star News in this edition. There will be a three-part History Series this summer on the United States-Dakota War of 1862.