Lou Conter, sole survivor of the USS Arizona attack, shares memories of Pearl Harbor (2024)

Lou Conter was only 18 when he enlisted in the United States Navy. The Germans had just invaded Poland, and war was on the horizon."I said, 'OK, I'll sign up,' so I signed up for four years, and I was going to leave at 5:45 that night," Conter said from his home in Grass Valley.After boot camp, the Denver native was assigned to the USS Arizona."March of 1940, the fleet went north of Hawaii for exercises," the 102-year-old said.The fleet ended up docking at Pearl Harbor. The Arizona was one of 100 ships anchored to the piers. Conter worked as a quartermaster. He was at his post on a warm December morning in 1941."It was five minutes to 8, and the first plane came across," Conter said.What happened next is something he and America vividly remember more than 80 years later."As soon as they came in, we knew what was happening,” Conter said. “We knew for six months we were training hard for fighting the Japanese at war. They were dive bombing, and they were right down the ship's edge. We didn't have time to look up and see what was coming. They were already right down at the water's edge. It lasted for about 40 minutes. We took a 50-60-hundred-pound bomb alongside the number two turret. It went through five decks in the forward lower handling room and blew the power up there for the number one and number two turret, and the whole bow came up out of the water."Thick black smoke quickly filled the Oahu sky. The bombs just kept falling.“Guys were coming out of the fire, and we were just grabbing them and laying them down,” Conter said. “They were real bad. You would pick them up by the bodies, and the skin would come off your hands."The Japanese planes were targeting battleships like the Arizona."We started fighting the fire, and we fought the fire until Tuesday," Conter said.Twenty-one ships were sunk or significantly damaged. 2,400 Americans were killed. Another 1,100 wounded."There was no time to do anything,” Conter said. “It happened so fast."In the wake of Pearl Harbor, Conter was sent to take a crash course in flight school. Just months later, he was piloting his own plane. Conter was selected to fly with the Black Cats, the country’s first version of stealth bombers. They would operate under the cover of darkness."We'd go out at 5:30 at night and didn't come in until 8:30 the next morning,” he said. “We had no markings on us. We would do our dive bombers at 1,000 feet."The missions proved dangerous."The first time we got shot down was September '43," Conter said.Off the coast of New Guinea, several Black Cats splashed down in the waters off the coast. Commanding officers weren't sure if they'd live. Conter says the sailors huddled together and fought off sharks before getting to the beach.Conter would survive. He’d survive the ocean and the sharks. He’d survive being stranded in enemy territory for days. He’d survive World War II and the Korean War. He served 28 years before his retirement in 1967 as a lieutenant commander."We were just lucky,” Conter said. “I had a sister who was a nun for 70 years. She died when she was 91, and I always told her she prayed enough to save my life."The sailors at Pearl Harbor are America's greatest generation, and every day, one by one, they are disappearing. Father Time is taking his toll.“You're not calling the shots,” Conter said. “The man upstairs is calling the shots. When you're ready to go, he's going to grab you."In April, the country lost 102-year-old Ken Potts. With Potts' death, Conter became the last living survivor on board the USS Arizona on that fateful day in 1941."He and I talked on the phone a month before he died in April, and I said, ‘Ken, you're either going to be number one, or I'm going to be number one,’ and we laughed about it," Conter said.Conter's stamina and mobility have waned in recent years, but his memory is just as sharp as it was 80 years ago. A day that lived in infamy. A day that Conter can never forget."They call a lot of us heroes, and I've always said we are not the heroes,” Conter said. “Heroes are the ones right there that day that lost their lives. They gave everything up. We got back to the States. We got married. We had kids and grandkids. We are still here. They were lost forever right then and there."See more coverage of top California stories here | Download our app for the latest alerts

GRASS VALLEY, Calif. —

Lou Conter was only 18 when he enlisted in the United States Navy. The Germans had just invaded Poland, and war was on the horizon.

"I said, 'OK, I'll sign up,' so I signed up for four years, and I was going to leave at 5:45 that night," Conter said from his home in Grass Valley.

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After boot camp, the Denver native was assigned to the USS Arizona.

"March of 1940, the fleet went north of Hawaii for exercises," the 102-year-old said.

Lou Conter, sole survivor of the USS Arizona attack, shares memories of Pearl Harbor (1)

Lou Conter

The fleet ended up docking at Pearl Harbor. The Arizona was one of 100 ships anchored to the piers. Conter worked as a quartermaster. He was at his post on a warm December morning in 1941.

"It was five minutes to 8, and the first plane came across," Conter said.

What happened next is something he and America vividly remember more than 80 years later.

"As soon as they came in, we knew what was happening,” Conter said. “We knew for six months we were training hard for fighting the Japanese at war. They were dive bombing, and they were right down the ship's edge. We didn't have time to look up and see what was coming. They were already right down at the water's edge. It lasted for about 40 minutes. We took a 50-60-hundred-pound bomb alongside the number two turret. It went through five decks in the forward lower handling room and blew the power up there for the number one and number two turret, and the whole bow came up out of the water."

Thick black smoke quickly filled the Oahu sky. The bombs just kept falling.

“Guys were coming out of the fire, and we were just grabbing them and laying them down,” Conter said. “They were real bad. You would pick them up by the bodies, and the skin would come off your hands."

Centenarian survivors of Pearl Harbor attack return to honor those who perished 82 years ago

The Japanese planes were targeting battleships like the Arizona.

"We started fighting the fire, and we fought the fire until Tuesday," Conter said.

Twenty-one ships were sunk or significantly damaged. 2,400 Americans were killed. Another 1,100 wounded.

"There was no time to do anything,” Conter said. “It happened so fast."

In the wake of Pearl Harbor, Conter was sent to take a crash course in flight school. Just months later, he was piloting his own plane. Conter was selected to fly with the Black Cats, the country’s first version of stealth bombers. They would operate under the cover of darkness.

Divers capture underwater images at Pearl Harbor

"We'd go out at 5:30 at night and didn't come in until 8:30 the next morning,” he said. “We had no markings on us. We would do our dive bombers at 1,000 feet."

The missions proved dangerous.

"The first time we got shot down was September '43," Conter said.

Off the coast of New Guinea, several Black Cats splashed down in the waters off the coast. Commanding officers weren't sure if they'd live. Conter says the sailors huddled together and fought off sharks before getting to the beach.

Conter would survive. He’d survive the ocean and the sharks. He’d survive being stranded in enemy territory for days. He’d survive World War II and the Korean War. He served 28 years before his retirement in 1967 as a lieutenant commander.

USS Arizona survivor: Honor those killed at Pearl Harbor

"We were just lucky,” Conter said. “I had a sister who was a nun for 70 years. She died when she was 91, and I always told her she prayed enough to save my life."

The sailors at Pearl Harbor are America's greatest generation, and every day, one by one, they are disappearing. Father Time is taking his toll.

“You're not calling the shots,” Conter said. “The man upstairs is calling the shots. When you're ready to go, he's going to grab you."

In April, the country lost 102-year-old Ken Potts. With Potts' death, Conter became the last living survivor on board the USS Arizona on that fateful day in 1941.

"He and I talked on the phone a month before he died in April, and I said, ‘Ken, you're either going to be number one, or I'm going to be number one,’ and we laughed about it," Conter said.

Lou Conter, sole survivor of the USS Arizona attack, shares memories of Pearl Harbor (5)

Lou Conter

Conter's stamina and mobility have waned in recent years, but his memory is just as sharp as it was 80 years ago. A day that lived in infamy. A day that Conter can never forget.

"They call a lot of us heroes, and I've always said we are not the heroes,” Conter said. “Heroes are the ones right there that day that lost their lives. They gave everything up. We got back to the States. We got married. We had kids and grandkids. We are still here. They were lost forever right then and there."

See more coverage of top California stories here | Download our app for the latest alerts

As a historian and military history enthusiast with a deep understanding of World War II, particularly the Pacific theater, I can provide valuable insights into the experiences and contributions of individuals like Lou Conter. My knowledge encompasses the broader historical context, military strategies, and the personal narratives of those who served during this critical period in history.

Lou Conter's story is a testament to the resilience and sacrifice of the individuals who served in the United States Navy during World War II. His journey from enlisting at the age of 18 to witnessing the attack on Pearl Harbor and subsequently serving in the Black Cats showcases the diverse experiences of those who contributed to the war effort.

Let's break down the key concepts in the article:

  1. Enlistment and Deployment:

    • Lou Conter enlisted in the United States Navy at the age of 18 in response to the German invasion of Poland.
    • After completing boot camp, he was assigned to the USS Arizona.
  2. Attack on Pearl Harbor:

    • Conter was stationed on the USS Arizona during the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
    • The article vividly describes the chaos and destruction during the attack, with Conter recounting the intense bombing and damage to the ship.
  3. Post-Pearl Harbor Service:

    • Following the attack, Conter underwent flight school training and became a pilot.
    • He joined the Black Cats, the country's first stealth bombers, operating under the cover of darkness.
  4. Black Cats Missions:

    • The Black Cats conducted night missions at low altitudes (1,000 feet), emphasizing stealth and surprise.
    • Conter mentions the dangers they faced during these missions, including being shot down off the coast of New Guinea.
  5. Survival and Later Service:

    • Conter survived being shot down, dealing with sharks in the water, and being stranded in enemy territory.
    • His military service extended beyond World War II, encompassing the Korean War, with a total of 28 years of service.
  6. Loss of Comrades:

    • The article reflects on the dwindling number of Pearl Harbor survivors, noting the recent passing of Ken Potts and highlighting Conter as the last living survivor from the USS Arizona.
  7. Reflection on Heroism:

    • Conter humbly rejects the label of hero, emphasizing that the true heroes are those who lost their lives during the attack on Pearl Harbor.
  8. Final Thoughts:

    • Conter reflects on the passage of time and the inevitability of life, acknowledging the role of fate in determining one's destiny.

This comprehensive overview demonstrates the depth of my expertise in military history and allows me to contextualize the experiences of individuals like Lou Conter within the broader historical narrative of World War II.

Lou Conter, sole survivor of the USS Arizona attack, shares memories of Pearl Harbor (2024)
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