Sailor Lou Conter was onboard the USS Arizona when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor 81 years ago. His battleship exploded and sank. Conter survived—and insists he’s not a hero.
Despite his protests, the now 101-year-old is something of a celebrity. That’s especially true on the anniversary of the December 7, 1941, assault. Folks often call Conter and others in the nation’s dwindling pool of Pearl Harbor survivors heroes. But he says, “The 2,403 men that died are the heroes. And we’ve got to honor them ahead of everybody else.”
Each year, the U.S. Navy and the National Park Service hosts a remembrance ceremony in honor of those killed. The event takes place at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial visitors center, which overlooks the water and the white structure built to honor those killed on Arizona.
Last year, about 30 survivors and some 100 other veterans of the war made the pilgrimage to the event. But the U.S. Navy and the National Park Service anticipated that only one or two survivors would attend in person this year. Another 20-30 veterans of World War II were also expected to be there.
Conter wasn’t among them. He attended for many years, most recently in 2019. But his doctor told him the five-hour flight, plus hours of waiting at airports, is too strenuous for him now.
“I’m going on 102 now. It’s kind of hard to mess around,” Conter says.
Instead, he planned to watch a video feed of this year’s anniversary observance from home. He also recorded a message for those attending.
Conter’s autobiography recounts how one of the Japanese bombs penetrated five steel decks on Arizona. It ignited over one million pounds of gunpowder and thousands of pounds of ammunition.
“The ship was consumed in a giant fireball that looked as if it engulfed everything from the mainmast forward,” Conter wrote.
He joined other survivors in tending to the injured, many of whom were blinded and badly burned. The sailors abandoned ship only when their senior surviving officer was sure they had rescued all those still alive.
Arizona’s 1,177 dead account for nearly half the servicemen killed in the bombing. The battleship today sits where it sank 81 years ago. More than 900 of its dead are still entombed inside.
After Pearl Harbor, Conter flew 200 combat missions in the Pacific with a “Black Cats” squadron, which conducted dive bombing at night in planes painted black.
One night in 1943, after being shot down near New Guinea, he and his crew had to avoid a dozen or so nearby sharks. A sailor expressed doubt they would survive, to which Conter responded, “Baloney.”
“Don’t ever panic in any situation,” he says. “Survive is the first thing you tell them. Don’t panic or you’re dead.”
The men stayed quiet and treaded water until another plane came and dropped them a lifeboat hours later.
In the late 1950s, Conter became the Navy’s first survival, evasion, resistance, and escape (SERE) officer. He spent the next decade training Navy pilots and crew on how to survive if shot down in the jungle and captured as a prisoner of war (POW). Some of his pupils used his instruction to live through years as POWs in Vietnam.
Conter hasn’t forgotten his shipmates. He said he’d like the military to try to identify 85 Arizona sailors who were buried as unknowns in a Honolulu, Hawaii, cemetery after the war.
“If they’re ever identified, I’m sure their families would want to bury them at home or wherever,” he says, “but [the military] should never give up on trying to identify them.”
Pay to all what is owed to them: . . . respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. — Romans 13:7
(Smoke rises from the battleship USS Arizona. The ship sank during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. AP)