Navy veteran Lou Conter is the last known survivor of the USS Arizona battleship, which sunk after being bombed by the Japanese during the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor during WWII.
The USS Arizona was one of the dozens of ships that were damaged or capsized during the surprise military strike on December 7, 1941, but its 1,177 dead sailors accounted for nearly half of the servicemen killed during the attack.
When Ken Potts died in April at 102-years-old, Conter became the last USS Arizona veteran at 101-years-old.
Conter enlisted in the Navy at 18-years-old, and was only 20 on the day of the attack, which happened while he was on watch.
“Everyone saw the red ball on the planes,” he recalled. “It was the Japanese rising sun, and we all knew what was happening.”
A 1,760-pound armor-piercing bomb hit the forward deck of the Arizona and blasted through five decks to ignite more than million pounds of gunpowder, and hundreds of thousands of pounds more of ammunition.
“The bow of the ship, all 34,000 tons, raised about 30 to 40 feet out of the water,” Conter wrote in his 2021 memoir.
“The ship was consumed in an enormous fireball that looked as if it engulfed everything from the mainmast forward.”
Conter was not hurt during the attack, and assisted the wounded onto lifeboats as the ship sunk. He also plucked dozens of other survivors out of the water as he rowed to shore.
“I consider the heroes the ones that gave their lives, that never came home to their families,” Conter told the Wall Street Journal. “They’re the real heroes.”
“As we guided these men to safety, more often than not, their burned skin would come off on our hands,” he wrote in a passage of his book.
After the devastating Pearl Harbor attack, Conter went to flight school and became a pilot. He flew combat missions in the South Pacific during the remainder of WWII, and was shot down twice.
Despite being downed in shark-infested waters, he instructed his crew to punch the sea creatures in the nose when they were attacked.
“And when the first one came along, I hit it in the nose and — boom! — it swam away, and they realized I was right,” he said.
Conter stayed in the service for 28 years, wrapping up his career as an intelligence officer during the Korean War, before he retired from the Navy as a lieutenant commander in 1967.
He went back to Pearl Harbor in 1991, to participate in the 50th year anniversary of the attack.
“When I walk aboard the USS Arizona Memorial and see those 1,177 names up there, I have to make the sign of the cross and say a prayer for them,” he commented.
“And I thank God my name is on the plaque outside with the survivors.”
He has since attended many of the yearly remembrances, but stopped going four years ago at his doctor’s insistence.
“I’d like to go once more,” he told the Journal.