Lou Conter, Last Survivor of the Battleship Arizona, Dies at 102


Lou Conter, the last known survivor of the battleship Arizona, which sank with the loss of 1,177 sailors and Marines in Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, plunging the United States into World War II, died on Monday at his home in Grass Valley, Calif. He was 102.

The death was confirmed by Warren R. Hull, a co-writer (with his wife, Annette Hull) of Mr. Conter’s 2021 memoir, “The Lou Conter Story: From U.S.S. Arizona Survivor to Unsung American Hero.”

Mr. Conter, who held the rank of quartermaster, a position assisting in the Arizona’s navigation, was on his shift shortly after 8 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, when a Japanese armor-piercing bomb penetrated five steel decks and blew up more than one million pounds of gunpowder and thousands of rounds of ammunition stored in its hull as the ship was moored in the harbor, in Honolulu, Hawaii.

“The ship was consumed in a giant fireball,” he wrote in his memoir.

Mr. Conter, who was knocked forward but uninjured, tended to survivors, many of them blinded and badly burned. When the order to abandon ship came, he was knee deep in water. A lifeboat took him ashore, and in the days that followed he helped in recovering bodies and putting out fires. Only 93 of those who were aboard the ship at the time lived; 242 other crew members were ashore.

Mr. Conter later attended Navy flight school and flew 200 combat missions in the Pacific, some of them involving nighttime dive bombing of Japanese targets. During one three-night period, his crew rescued 219 Australian coast watchers from New Guinea who were in danger of being overrun by approaching Japanese. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for that exploit.

Holding the rank of lieutenant, Mr. Conter went on to fly 29 combat missions during the Korean War and serve as an intelligence officer for a Navy aircraft carrier group. In the late 1950s, he helped establish the Navy’s first SERE program (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) to train Navy airmen in how to survive if they were shot down in the jungle and captured.

He retired from the Navy in 1967 as a lieutenant commander and was later a real estate broker and developer in the Los Angeles area.

Louis Anthony Conter was born on Sept. 13, 1921, in the northern Wisconsin town of Ojibwa, a son of Nicholas and Lottie Conter. His father was involved in construction work that eventually took the family to Wheatridge, Colo., outside Denver. After graduating from high school, Lou joined the Navy in 1939 and reported to the Arizona in January 1940.

His wife, Valerie, died in 2016. His two previous marriages ended in divorce. He had three children from his first marriage and another three from his second, along with many grandchildren. Complete information about his survivors was not immediately available.

His death came almost a year after that of Ken Potts, the second-to-last survivor of the attack, who was also 102.

Mr. Conter’s home in Grass Valley, in Northern California near Tahoe National Forest, was filled with memorabilia from the Arizona, including a piece of the wreckage. He once said that “each morning I wake up, pay homage” to all the Americans killed on Pearl Harbor Sunday, “including the 1,177 of my shipmates on the Arizona, and go from there.”

He rejected any notion that the dwindling number of Arizona survivors should be hailed as heroes. “The 2,403 men that died are the heroes,” he said in a 2022 interview with The Associated Press, referring to all the Americans who perished in the Pearl Harbor attack. “I’m not a hero. I was just doing my job.”

Until 2020, when the infirmities of age limited him, Mr. Conter attended annual memorial services at Pearl Harbor organized by the Navy and the National Park Service.

The U.S.S. Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, which is overseen by the park service, marks the resting place of 1,102 of the crewmen killed in the attack on what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called “a date which will live in infamy” when he asked Congress for a declaration of war with Japan. The memorial, built in 1962 and visited by nearly two million people annually, straddles the sunken hull of the Arizona without touching it.

It reads: “To the memory of the gallant men here entombed and their shipmates who gave their lives in action on December 7, 1941, on the U.S.S. Arizona.” The battleship’s sunken remains are a National Historic Landmark.

Alex Traub contributed reporting.



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