Retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Joe Langdell, nearly the last witness to one of the most devastating events in American military history — the 1941 bombing of the battleship Arizona at Pearl Harbor, has died. He was 100 and the oldest survivor of the Arizona attack.
Langdell died Feb. 4 at a nursing facility in Yuba City, Calif. He had been in declining health and did not respond to treatment for a recent respiratory condition, said his son, Ted.
The Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese bombing raid, which propelled the United States into World War II, resulted in the deaths of 1,177 crewmen of the Arizona, the greatest loss of life on any warship in American naval history, according to Daniel Martinez, chief historian for the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument at Pearl Harbor.
There were 334 survivors. With the death of Langdell, who was the last surviving officer of the Arizona, only eight are still living.
Oral histories were taken from numerous survivors. But as their number dwindle, the human connection to the incident is lost.
“What we lose is that tactile experience of seeing them, talking to them, shaking their hands,” Martinez said this week. “We lose that human link to such a moment in American history.”
Langdell was not aboard the ship the morning of the attack. Because of a temporary assignment, he was sleeping in a barracks about 100 yards from the ship in Honolulu.
From his bed, he heard the sound of the Japanese dive bombers as they approached.
“I felt absolutely helpless,” he told the Associated Press in 1997. “If I had been aboard, I would have been killed in that No. 2 turret. That was the one that blew up. It was my luck to be assigned off the ship that day.”
As the first wave of the attack waned, Langdell rushed toward the ship to help surviving crewmen from the waters off the coast of Hawaii. His most gruesome task came several days later, when he headed a team sent to the ship’s wreckage with stacks of sheets and pillowcases. His orders were to gather all the bodies that could be found above the water line.
“It took two days,” he told the Arizona Republic last year. “We carefully wrapped them in sheets. The body parts we put in pillow cases. We swept the decks and took the small bones.
“Everything was taken ashore and properly taken care of.”
Fifty years after the attack, Langdell played a role in an emotional act of reconciliation. He accompanied former dive bomber pilot Zenji Abe, who took part in the Japanese raid, on a visit to the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor. The two men placed a wreath at a wall inscribed with the names of the American crewmen who lost their lives in the attack.
“I appreciate your thoughtfulness,” Langdell told Abe, in a moment caught in the documentary film, “USS Arizona: The Life & Death Of A Lady.” “It took more courage on your part to present this wreath than it did for me to accept it.”
Both men had tears in their eyes, said Martinez, who was with them.
“It took a great deal of courage and humanity for [Langdell] to say what he did and shake his hand,” Martinez said. “It will give you an idea of the character of this man.”
Joseph Kopcho Langdell was born Oct. 12, 1914, in the small town of Wilton, N.H.
After graduating from high school, Langdell went to Boston University, graduating in 1938 with a business degree. He worked as an accountant before signing up for a Navy program for college graduates that quickly turned out officers. In March 1941 he was commissioned as an ensign.
After the war, he and his wife, Elizabeth, settled in California and opened a furniture and appliance store in Yuba City.
Elizabeth Langdell died in 2012. Besides his son Ted, who lives in Marysville, Calif., Joe Langdell is survived by his son John of Spearfish, S.D.; and two grandchildren.