Langdell saw the USS Arizona sink in a matter of minutes. He helped sailors get to safety and, days later, was asked to pull dead bodies out of the water. He eventually retired as a lieutenant commander, although to most, his rank was and will forever be: Pearl Harbor survivor.
Langdell died last week in Northern California. At 100 years old, he had been the oldest living member of the USS Arizona crew and its last surviving officer, according to the USS Arizona Reunion Association.
“He was 100 years, three months and 24 days old,” his son, Ted Langdell, wrote in a Facebook tribute to the World War II veteran. “A long-time listener to classical music, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, ‘The Eroica’ played him off this life’s stage.”
Just 334 USS Arizona crew members survived the 1941 attack. With Langdell’s death, there are now only eight crewmen from the Arizona still living, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) wrote that Langdell’s request to have his remains interred inside the ship would be honored.
On numerous occasions, Langdell provided his eyewitness account of that infamous day. In one telling, to National Park Service interviewers, he said that he had been sound asleep when the sneak attack began.
“The building started rattling,” he said. “We didn’t think too much about it. But when we heard a big boom, we thought we better get up and see, and we got up and I guess we looked out, went downstairs and looked out and saw that it was more than what we thought, and could see a … plane go up.
“So, we went back, got dressed, and came down to the water’s edge, which as I remember was roughly 100 yards. … Watched the Arizona sink in nine minutes. You were spellbound, you couldn’t think what to do. And then after the ship blew up, then the sailors started coming ashore with their skin peeling off their back and their arms and they were all full of oil, and we helped them out of the water.
“And then I remember distinctly taking one man named Flanagan, happened to be an ensign, I didn’t know it at the time. Took him down to the hospital, and when you get to the hospital, there was a doctor. And the first doctor would look the man over and if he thought he could save him, he says go here. And if he thought that he couldn’t save him right off, within a reasonable length of time, he went down to the second line and that was the fellas that they didn’t think was going to make it.”
On the 56th anniversary of the attack, Langdell told the Associated Press that he “felt absolutely helpless as I watched. … 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.”
Some 40 men assigned to the USS Arizona were not aboard the ship on the day of the attack, according to the Park Service.
Langdell told the Arizona Daily Star in 2003 that he clearly recalled pulling 62 bodies — many burned and torn open from the blasts — from the water.
In an interview with the Appeal Democrat, he explained how, days after the attack, he was eating breakfast when a difficult request was made. He was new to the Navy, he recalled, just about a year in.
“An officer came in and he says, ‘Is there an officer here from the Arizona?’ But the only thing I could do is put my hand up, and he says, ‘After breakfast, Mr. Langdell, you go down to the dock, there will be a [boat] down there with 15 men, sheets and pillow cases. And you go out to the Arizona and take all the dead bodies off above the waterline.’
“So that we did. Took two days to do it,” Langdell said, choking up. “Then I think about 30 years later, I went back to Punch Bowl National Cemetery, and looked at all those graves.”
“It took two days to take all the bodies,” Langdell told the Arizona Republic this past December. “We carefully wrapped them in sheets. The body parts we put in pillowcases. We swept the decks and took the small bones. Everything was taken ashore and properly taken care of.'”
The Japanese had dropped a 1,760-pound bomb on the battleship, causing an explosion and fire that killed 1,177 Marines and sailors. Fires raged for more than two days; according to the Park Service, many crew members were essentially cremated, and their remains were left aboard. The remains of some were buried as unknowns at Punchbowl, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.
A memorial has since been built over the sunken ship.
Langdell didn’t begin opening up about what he experienced until later in life. His son, Ted, told the Associated Press that his father returned to the site of the attack for the first time after one of his children enlisted in the Navy in 1976. “After that,” according to the AP,” Langdell took comfort in meeting with fellow survivors and pride in always wearing a USS Arizona hat.”
“It drew attention not just to him, but gave him the chance to tell stories,” Ted Langdell said. “Anyone in the service has stories to tell if you make the effort to listen and to really hear and try to understand what they are saying.”
Langdell became active in helping organize anniversary tributes to those who perished in the attack. “I try not to shed a lot of tears about it, but I’m sentimental,” he told the Arizona Daily Star. “It’s just important to remember that we’re the greatest country in the world because we have freedom and if we want to keep our freedom, we need to protect it.”
In an interview with the Park Service, Langdell said that previous policy dictated that only crew members who had been aboard the USS Arizona at the time of the attack could be interred aboard the ship, but he helped to change that.
The current policy, enforced by the USS Arizona Reunion Association, allows for the cremated remains of any crew member assigned to the Arizona on Dec. 7, 1941, to be interred on the ship. To do so, divers swim with the urn and place it inside the barbette of gun turret No. 4.
Before enlisting, Langdell graduated from Boston University and worked as an accountant in Boston. The Arizona Republic writes that “he became restless. He signed up for a Navy program that allowed college graduates to attend officer candidate school and emerge as ensigns within three months. By early 1941, Langdell was one of the ’90-day wonders’ and drew his first assignment: The USS Arizona.”
After the Pearl Harbor attack, Langdell spent another four years in the Navy and served aboard the USS Frazier. The New England native eventually became an auctioneer and owned a furniture store in Yuba City, Calif., where he died this month.
Ted Langdell wrote that his father’s skills “ranged from the use of wood stoves and outhouses in cold, New Hampshire winters, milking cows in his father’s barn, guiding horse-drawn buggies and driving early motor cars, building crystal radio sets and cranking party-line, operator-connected telephones, to using cell phones, e-mailing and surfing the internet. He could play 78s and LPs, CDs, DVDs and VHS tapes, but resetting those players’ clocks required assistance.”
“In his passing, he rejoins Libby — Elizabeth Hamilton McGauhy Langdell, his wife of 70 years — who often observed that ‘Joe gets into the manure pile and comes out smelling like a rose,'” Ted Langdell wrote. “For Joe Langdell — loquacious, lover of a good story and the life of many parties — the party that just ended here will be well remembered by many, while another is likely to just be starting.”