All Gone

Go to Blog
Alex Kershaw
April 11, 2024

It had to happen one day. The last of the survivors of the USS Arizona was going to pass away. Indeed, the news that Lt. Commander Louis A. “Lou” Conter had died this 1 April came as no great surprise. Nonetheless, it was widely regarded as a poignant closing to a remarkable chapter in US naval history.

The last USS Arizona survivor, Lou Conter.

Conter reached 102, outliving all of his fellow survivors from the USS Arizona, the most famous of the battleships sunk at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, a date that would, as President Roosevelt famously said, forever live in “infamy”. With Conter’s  passing, the last living link to that extraordinary battleship’s fate has gone, and with it yet another vital connection to World War II.

Ken Potts, the penultimate USS Arizona survivor.

Conter was all alone - the last living survivor - for almost a year. On 21 April 2023, the penultimate survivor, Ken Potts, died at the same age. I was lucky enough to interview Potts before his death. He told me that early on 7 December 1941 he heard a loudspeaker blaring, instructing “all Navy personnel to get back to their ships.” Potts took a taxi to the USS Arizona and hurried to his station – he served as a crane operator. Then the Japanese attacked. “I don’t know what hell is like,” added Potts, “but I guess that morning would be as close as you can get.” Soon, it seemed that all of Pearl Harbor “was afire. Oil was leaking from the ships that were hit by torpedoes.”

Potts was aboard the Arizona when it was hit by a Japanese bomb which caused fuel stores and ammunition magazines to explode: “I was on the stern of the ship. Everything was in turmoil after that. It was like the whole country was burning. The word was passed to abandon ship, and those who could get off jumped into the water. It was a mess.”

The USS Arizona explodes after being hit on 7 December 1941.

Potts jumped into the harbor. He was one of just 334 from the 1,511-man crew who survived. The Arizona’s death toll was almost half of all Americans killed on 7 December. He and other survivors then “pulled a lot of people out of the water. Everybody was doing anything they could do to help.” In the weeks following the attack, Potts helped retrieve bodies of his Arizona crewmates. He would leave the US Navy in 1945 and then work as a carpenter and car salesman in Utah.

The USS Arizona on 7 December 1941.

Lou Conter also searched for his deceased crewmates following the Japanese attack. He then trained to be a pilot, eventually completing over 200 missions in “Black Cat” Catalina Flying Boats, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross for rescuing Australian Coast Watchers on New Guinea.

Conter was shot down twice but was able to use a raft and reach safety on both occasions. At one point, he and his air-crew spent several hours in shark-infested waters. “We had 10 or 12 sharks around us all the time,” Conter recalled. “I told the men, “If a shark comes close, hit it in the nose with your fist as hard as you can.””

Conter was made of stern stuff indeed, returning to active duty during the Korean War and flying 29 combat missions over North Korea. In 1955, he set up the Navy’s first Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) course. After Congressional complaints about the severity of the training, Commander James Stockdale was sent to report on the program.

Stockdale described the training as the most challenging he’d ever experienced but also the best. Stockdale would later become a prisoner during the Vietnam War. “Without that training,” he told Conter, “I would never have lived through my seven and a half years in a POW camp.”

Conter retired as Lt. Commander in 1967 after 28 years of service. He then became a successful real estate developer in California. For several decades, Conter was present at Pearl Harbor for memorial services each 7 December. He did not like to be called a hero. “The 2,403 men that died [at Pearl Harbor] are the heroes,” he insisted. Today, the USS Arizona still lies where it sank more than eight decades ago. There are more than 900 dead entombed inside.  

Lou Conter at Pearl Harbor in December 2016.

Conter’s death this month deservedly made headlines around the world, a notable reminder that the very last of the Greatest Generation are fast disappearing. Of the 16 million Americans who served in WWII, less than 120,000 are thought to still be with us. More than 100 of them die each day. Of the 87,000 members of the US military on the island of Oahu on 7 December 1941, less than twenty are still breathing. All too soon, there will be none.  

The USS Arizona Memorial.