Lou Conter, last living survivor of Pearl Harbor aboard USS Arizona, dies at 102

  • Lou Conter, the last living survivor of Pearl Harbor who was aboard the USS Arizona when it exploded and sank, died Monday. He was 102 years old.
  • Conter, who was quartermaster on December 7, 1941, was on the ship's main deck when Japanese planes flew overhead and began their assault on the Hawaii naval base.
  • Conter's illustrious career would continue long after Pearl Harbor. A trained pilot and member of a squadron of “Black Cats,” Conter was also the Navy’s first survival, evasion, resistance and evasion – or SERE – officer. He retired in 1967.

The last living survivor of the battleship USS Arizona that exploded and sank during the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor has died. Lou Conter was 102 years old.

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

Arizona lost 1,177 sailors and Marines in the 1941 attack that launched the United States into World War II. The battleship's deaths 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 in the morning on December 7 of that year. The sailors were just beginning to raise their colors or hoist the flag when the assault began.

Conter recalled how a bomb penetrated steel decks 13 minutes into the battle and set off more than a million pounds of gunpowder stored below.

The explosion lifted the battleship 30 to 40 feet out of the water, he said in a 2008 oral history interview held at the Library of Congress. Everything was on fire from the mainmast, he said.

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

His autobiography “The Lou Conter Story” recounts how he joined other survivors in tending the wounded, many of whom were blinded and badly burned. The sailors abandoned ship only when their surviving commanding officer was sure they had saved everyone who was still alive.

The rusting wreck of the Arizona still lies in the waters where it sank. More than 900 sailors and Marines remain buried inside.

Lou Conter

FILE – Pearl Harbor survivor Lou Conter, 101, is seen at his home in Grass Valley, Calif., Nov. 18, 2022. Conter, the last living survivor of the battleship USS Arizona that exploded and sank during the Japanese bombardment of Pearl Harbor, died Monday, April 1, 2024 from congestive heart failure, his daughter said. He was 102 years old. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, file)

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

In 1943, he and his crew were shot down in waters near New Guinea and had to avoid a dozen sharks. One sailor expressed doubts about their survival, to which Conter replied “that's bullshit.”

“Never panic, whatever the situation. Survive is the first thing you tell them. Don't panic or you're dead,” he said. They were silent and treading water until another plane arrived a few hours later and dropped a lifeboat on them.

In the late 1950s, he became the Navy's first SERE officer – an acronym for survival, evasion, resistance and evasion. He spent the next decade training Navy pilots and crew on how to survive if they were shot down in the jungle and taken as prisoners of war. Some of his students used his classes as prisoners of war in Vietnam.

Conter retired in 1967 after 28 years in the Navy.

Conter was born in Ojibwa, Wisconsin, on September 13, 1921. His family later moved to Colorado, where he walked five miles to school outside Denver. His house didn't have running water, so he tried out for the football team — less for love of the sport than because the players could shower at school after practice.

He enlisted in the Navy after he turned 18, earning $17 a month and a hammock for his bunk at boot camp.

In his later years, Conter became a fixture at the annual Pearl Harbor commemoration ceremonies that the Navy and National Park Service jointly held on the anniversaries of the 1941 attack. When he had not without the strength to attend in person, he recorded video messages for those gathering and watching remotely from his home in California.

In 2019, when he was 98 years old, he said he loved going to remember those who lost their lives.

“It’s always good to come back and pay tribute to them and give them the highest honors that they deserve,” he said.

Although many treated the dwindling group of Pearl Harbor survivors as heroes, Conter refused that label.


“The 2,403 men who died are the heroes. And we have to honor them above anyone else. And I've said that every time, and I think it should be emphasized,” Conter told the Associated Press in an interview in 2022. at his California home.


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