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Lou Conter, ex- resident of Colorado and final survivor of USS Arizona from Pearl Harbor attack, dies at 102

The last surviving member of the USS Arizona battleship, which exploded and sank during the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, has passed away. Lou Conter was 102.

HONOLULU — The last living survivor of the USS Arizona battleship that exploded and sank during the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor has passed away. Lou Conter was 102.

Conter died at his home Monday in Grass Valley, California following congestive heart failure, his daughter, Louann Daley said.

The Arizona lost 1,177 sailors and Marines in the 1941 attack that led the United States into World War II. The battleship’s dead account for nearly half of those killed in the surprise attack.

Conter was a quartermaster, standing on the main deck of the Arizona as Japanese planes flew overhead at 7:55 a.m. on Dec. 7 that year. Sailors were just beginning to hoist colors or raise the flag when the assault began.

Conter remembered how one bomb breached steel decks 13 minutes into the battle and set off more than 1 million pounds (450,000 kilograms) of gunpowder stored below.

The explosion raised the battleship 30 to 40 feet (9 to 12 metes) out of the water, he said during a 2008 oral history interview housed at the Library of Congress. Everything was on fire from the mainmast forward, he said.

“Guys were running out of the fire and trying to jump over the sides,” Conter said. “Oil all over the sea was burning.”

His autobiography “The Lou Conter Story” recounts how he joined other survivors in tending to the injured, many of them blinded and badly burned. The sailors only abandoned ship when their senior surviving officer was sure they had rescued all those still alive.

The decaying wreckage of the Arizona still lies in waters where it sank. More than 900 sailors and Marines remain entombed inside.

Conter went to flight school after Pearl Harbor, earning his wings to fly PBY patrol bombers, which the Navy used to look for submarines and bomb enemy targets. He flew 200 combat missions in the Pacific with a “Black Cats” squadron, which carried out dive bombing at night in planes painted black.

In 1943, he and his crew were shot down in waters near New Guinea and had to evade a dozen sharks. A sailor expressed doubt they would survive, to which Conter replied, “nonsense.”

“Don’t ever panic in any situation. Survive is the first thing you tell them. Don’t panic or you’re dead,” he said. They were silent and treaded water until another plane arrived hours later and dropped them a lifeboat.

In the late 1950s, he was appointed the Navy’s first SERE officer — an acronym for survival, evasion, resistance and escape. He spent the next decade training Navy pilots and crew on how to survive if they’re shot down in the jungle and captured as a prisoner of war. Some of his students used his lessons as POWs in Vietnam.

Conter retired in 1967 after 28 years in the Navy.

Conter was born in Ojibwa, Wisconsin, on Sept. 13, 1921. His family later moved to Colorado where he walked five miles (eight kilometers) one way to school outside Denver. His house didn’t have running water so he tried out for the football team — less for a love of the sport and more because the players could take showers at school after practice.

He joined the Navy after he became 18, receiving $17 monthly and a hammock for his bunk during boot camp.

In his later years, Conter regularly participated in annual remembrance ceremonies in Pearl Harbor, which were jointly organized by the Navy and the National Park Service to mark the anniversaries of the 1941 attack. When he was too weak to attend in person, he made video messages for those who gathered and watched from his home in California.

In 2019, at the age of 98, he mentioned that he enjoyed going to honor those who lost their lives.

He expressed, “It’s always good to return and show respect to them and give them the highest honors they deserve.”

Despite being seen as heroes by many, Conter did not want to be called one of them.

“The real heroes are the 2,403 men who died. We need to give them the highest honor before anyone else. I've said this every time, and it should be emphasized,” Conter stated in a 2022 interview at his California residence.

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