The final crew member

Published 10:36 pm Monday, July 24, 2017

Memories of World War II still clear for A.L. veteran

It’s a general understanding that the more someone ages, the more some memories fade away.

The same holds true for Art Ludtke.

Ludtke, 91, has some trouble recalling details for some memories, while others are much clearer.

Ludtke served aboard the USS Gen. R.E. Callan during World War II on its maiden voyage as well as its final voyage as a U.S. military vessel. Now believed to be the only remaining surviving sailor from the ship, Ludtke goes to Fredericksburg, Texas, every Memorial Day to lay a wreath for the ship. Provided

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Memories from his time serving during World War II are among the ones that remain very clear in his mind.

At 18, Ludtke was drafted and entered into the United States Navy mere days after graduating from Albert Lea High School.

“There wasn’t much of a choice in those days,” said Ludtke’s wife, Donna.

Donna Ludtke helps remind her husband of certain details that have become fuzzy over time. Art Ludtke, a Kiester/Walters-area native, is currently staying at St. John’s Lutheran Community. Aside from his temporary residence there, the couple lives in Albert Lea, after spending most of their near-69 years of married life in Clarks Grove.

Donna Ludtke knew her future husband before he left for the Navy, but said the two didn’t start dating until his return following the end of the war. She has heard her husband’s stories, though, and has gone with him every Memorial Day for the past 13 years to lay a wreath at the memorial for his ship in Fredericksburg, Texas.

Art Ludtke was a gunner’s mate aboard the USS R.E. Callan. He was aboard the ship for not only its maiden voyage, but for its last voyage as a military vessel, and is believed to be the last surviving sailor from the original crew of the ship.

After finishing boot camp in Idaho, Ludtke boarded the Callan near San Francisco in September 1944 and disembarked near Boston in June 1946, where he said it was his job to get the last of the ammunition off of the ship.

“I was the last one off,” Ludtke said.

During his two years aboard the Callan, Ludtke and his shipmates transported over 17,000 troops from the U.S. to both the European and Pacific theaters. They traveled the equivalency of more than four times around the globe and crossed the equator six times.

The offside to all that mileage as a troop carrier, though, was that the Callan was assigned the task of bringing the bodies of fallen soldiers and sailors back en route to their final resting place.

While primarily a personnel carrier, the Callan still saw its fair share of battles, as well.

“It got pretty thick,” Ludtke said. “We were always in tough spots. You never knew if you were going to be there tomorrow.”

Ludtke prided himself on being a good shot, something he said he learned from his grandfather. He remembered shooting a basket over to another Navy vessel so that Admiral Chester Nimitz could board the Callan one time.

A darker memory that sticks out for Ludtke is a time when three men had to be buried at sea, as the resources weren’t available to transport them back to the U.S.

“That was hard to do, but I had to do it,” Ludtke said. “That’s the one thing I hated.”

“It wasn’t all glory,” Donna Ludtke added.

Art Ludtke said he has been touched by the support he receives, though, both from his own family as well as those he has met down in Texas. He recalled children lining up to shake his hand following the Memorial Day services.

While Ludtke said he is proud to have served, he doesn’t like seeing people in the position he was in — having to go to war and shoot at someone.

“It’s not a good feeling,” he said.

He looks forward to his yearly trips to Texas, but said the trips do bring back a lot of memories and a lot of emotions — especially since he’s the last remaining crew member.

“It’s a tearjerker,” he said. “I take my wife along because I have no one left to honor.”

Art Ludtke

Age: 91

Address: Albert Lea

Livelihood: retired after previously owning grain elevators in Clarks Grove and Walters

Family: wife, Donna; three children, seven grandchildren and seven great-grandsons

Interesting fact: He enjoys traveling and used to do a lot of woodworking

About Colleen Harrison

Colleen Harrison is the photo editor at the Albert Lea Tribune. She does photography and writes general-assignment stories.

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