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Lou Conter, last survivor of the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor, dies at 102

Lou Conter, pictured at the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, in 2016, died on Monday. He was the last living survivor of the USS Arizona battleship that exploded and sank during the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Craig T. Kojima
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AP
Lou Conter, pictured at the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, in 2016, died on Monday. He was the last living survivor of the USS Arizona battleship that exploded and sank during the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Lou Conter, the last known survivor of the attack on the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor, has died at the age of 102.

Conter, who was a 20-year-old quartermaster at the time of the naval assault, was on the back decks of the battleship on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese forces decimated the U.S. Pacific fleet. The unprecedented attack killed 1,177 on the Arizona, with over 900 of those individuals never recovered.

As the bombs rained down on the naval base, one landed between two main guns at the front of the Arizona. The explosion ignited a huge store of TNT black powder that was used for the ship's battery guns.

"There went a million pounds of powder," Conter recalled in a 2018 interview with the American Veterans Center. "It blew up!"

The explosion was so intense that it split the ship in two, "and the bow came up about 30, 40 feet out of the water and fell straight back down," he remembered.

The strike was catastrophic and it only took about 10 minutes for the ship to sink, David Kilton, a spokesman for the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, told NPR.

Meanwhile, amid the chaos, Conter abandoned the ship and eventually made it to safety, only to be ordered onto a rescue boat to help pull bodies from the water. "Some of those were individuals in distress, trying to figure out how to swim around the huge quantities of oil that had leaked out and the flames that were on the water," Kilton said.

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

The battleship USS Arizona belches smoke as it topples over during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. The attack drew the U.S. into World War II.
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AP
The battleship USS Arizona belches smoke as it topples over during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. The attack drew the U.S. into World War II.

Conter's life mantra in and out of battle was simple: Don't panic

Shortly after the horrors in Hawaii, Conter was selected for flight training and became a Navy aviator. He flew some 200 combat missions in the Pacific throughout WWII.

Ed Bonner, a family friend who wrote the foreword for Conter's autobiography, The Lou Conter Story, described the war veteran as a warm man who never lost his cool — even when being shot down during a mission.

In September 1943, Conter was given orders to drop flares over the Japanese fleet off the coast of New Guinea to keep them awake, Bonner told NPR, sharing one of his favorite war stories of Conter's. But as they were flying over the base, Conter's plane was struck, crashing into the ocean. "And as they hit the water – about six miles off of New Guinea — the co-pilot tells the 10-person crew, 'Say your prayers, boys. We are all going to die.' "

But Conter wasn't having that, Bonner laughed.

Instead, he ordered the terrified crew not to panic. In fact, Bonner said, that was Conter's life mantra: Don't panic.

So, as they were going down, Conter tried to calm his men with a plan. "He said, 'Get ready to swim. We're going to just paddle slowly and if a shark comes up to you, punch it in the nose.' "

That's exactly what they did, escaping about a dozen sharks on their way to the shore, according to Bonner.

"Eventually, they got rescued. They had dinner, went to sleep and got up and flew another mission the next night. And that is how we won the war. It was men like that," Bonner declared with admiration.

After WWII, Conter went on to serve in the Korean War. Later, he became the Navy's first SERE officer — an acronym for survival, evasion, resistance and escape. For years, he helped establish the program, training Navy pilots and crew how to survive if they were shot down in the jungle and captured as prisoners of war.

By the end of his 27-year career in the Navy, in 1967, he'd risen to the ranks of lieutenant commander. He then moved to California, became a real estate developer, and married his second wife, Valerie. They were together for 47 years.

Conter passed away on Monday at his home in Grass Valley, Calif., following congestive heart failure.

Lou Conter's death prompted a a statement from President Biden, who said, "He never forgot all the brave men he served with on board the Arizona. Until he was nearly 100 years old, he attended annual memorial services at Pearl Harbor."
Rich Pedroncelli / AP
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AP
Lou Conter's death prompted a a statement from President Biden, who said, "He never forgot all the brave men he served with on board the Arizona. Until he was nearly 100 years old, he attended annual memorial services at Pearl Harbor."

The nation mourns Conter's passing

On Monday, President Biden reacted to Conter's death.

"He never forgot all the brave men he served with on board the Arizona. Until he was nearly 100 years old, he attended annual memorial services at Pearl Harbor," Biden said in a statement.

The president added: "The women and men who serve in the U.S. Armed Forces are patriots in the highest sense. Like Lou, they risk their own safety for the safety of their fellow Americans. Like Lou, they bravely undertake dangerous missions to defend our nation's freedom and future. Like Lou, they believe deeply in their duty to their country and their fellow service members and will go to the ends of the earth to fulfill that duty. Our nation owes them all a debt of gratitude we can never repay."

Pearl Harbor National Memorial Superintendent Tom Leatherman also mourned the loss of Conter

"The passing of Lou is the end of an era and so hard for the many of us who have gotten to know him over the years," Leatherman said.

"Now more than ever we must find a way to keep the legacy of Pearl Harbor, that Lou championed for so many years, alive. We owe it to him and all those who served and lost their lives to make sure they did not die in vain," he added, noting that the flag at over the USS Arizona Memorial will be flown at half-staff in honor of Conter's life and service until the day of his interment.

Conter's family said funeral arrangements are being made, and there will be a ceremony with full military honors.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.