Final USS Arizona Survivor, Hero Lou Conter, Dies at 102

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In the tranquil city of Grass Valley, California, a remarkable life filled with heroism, resilience, and dedication drew to a close. Lou Conter, the last living survivor of the doomed USS Arizona battleship and a historical anecdote to one of America’s grimmest periods, succumbed at the age of 102 to congestive heart failure. His journey through life ended peacefully at his home, surrounded by loved ones, it was his daughter, Louann Daley, who shared the news of his passing.

In the annals of U.S. war history, the tragedy of the USS Arizona stands out. The ship, a battleship victim of the surprise Japanese bombing in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, bore the weight of 1,177 lives lost during the 1941 onslaught. The victims accounted for nearly half of the total casualties of this grave attack, which subsequently hurled the United States into the throes of World War II.

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As a quartermaster aboard the Arizona, Conter witnessed the chaos from its main deck. Ink-colored enemy planes peppered the azure morning sky on that fateful day, December 7. At 7:55 AM, amidst the routine flag hoisting, the bombardment took off. Conter’s memory later bore vivid reminiscence of the harrowing time.

In Conter’s retelling, only 13 minutes into the terrifying dance of death, a bomb found its way through the vessel’s steel decks detonating a mammoth stash of gunpowder that had been stored below. The explosive force acted as a vengeful geyser, pushing the Arizona 30 to 40 feet out of the water. Fire became the Arizona’s shroud from the forward mainmast.

Conter’s descriptions of panic and despair became all too palpable. Men, aflame and terror-stricken, tried unsuccessfully to leap into the oil-covered sea, which was likewise set ablaze. His autobiography “The Lou Conter Story,” is a chilling testament to the horrors of that day, etching an unforgettable moment in American history.

The Arizona, now forever silenced and rusted, still lies beneath the Pacific waves. A tomb for more than 900 of its sailors and Marines, it serves as a silent reminder of the terrible day, claiming only 335 of its crew as survivors.

Post-Pearl Harbor, Conter would come to tread the skies. He earned his wings and flew PBY patrol bombers as part of the Navy’s initiative to hunt submarines and target enemy territories. His aerial pursuits included 200 combat missions, painting the Pacific with the mark of the iconic “Black Cats” squadron. They dove at night in planes cloaked in shadows, their purpose resolute and unwavering.

In 1943, catastrophe found Conter once again. Alongside his crew, he was shot down near New Guinea, managing to escape stinging death in waters teeming with sharks. The following hours tested their endurance. The men treaded water in dead silence until rescue in the form of a lifeboat dropped from a plane.

After his years atop the clouds, the Navy appointed Conter as the inaugural SERE officer in the late 1950s, signifying survival, evasion, resistance, and escape. For the following ten years, he imparted his hardened wisdom on how to survive in the wild to Navy pupils, some of whom would put this into practice later as POWs in Vietnam.

Conter, a Wisconsin native born on Sept. 13, 1921, had a humble upbringing that traced back to his family’s relocation to Colorado. He braved five-mile walks to a school outside Denver and enlisted into the Navy at 18, trodding the first steps of his legendary military career.

As his health deteriorated, Conter remained surrounded by family, pouring out gratitude for their care and love. “I’m glad he’s at peace. I’m glad he didn’t suffer.” Daley would later say, her voice resonant with relief and sorrow. As his death leaves a mere 19 survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack, Lou Conter’s story itself seems to resonate more deeply.

Conter’s later years saw him frequently interacting with annual remembrance ceremonies in Pearl Harbor – if not in person, then remotely from his home. He honored those who lost their lives in the attack, refusing to take the mantle of a hero for himself. “The 2,403 men that died are the heroes,” Conter often said. Even in death, Conter’s humility remains a testament to his character.

With his family planning his burial in Grass Valley beside his dearly beloved late wife, Valerie, the sense of a chapter closing is all too evident. But even as his personal journey concludes, Lou Conter’s tale of survival, dedication, and bravery continue to echo as a robust embodiment of the human spirit.