Last USS Arizona survivor of Pearl Harbor attack dies at 102

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - U.S. Navy veteran Louis Conter, the last surviving crew member from the battleship USS Arizona, which was destroyed by Japanese warplanes in the attack on Pearl Harbor more than eight decades ago, has died at age 102.

Conter, who flew bombing missions as a Navy pilot after Pearl Harbor, succumbed to congestive heart failure on Monday at his home in Grass Valley, California, in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada, his daughter Louann Daley said.

Conter was a young sailor standing watch on the quarterdeck of the Arizona when Japanese bombers swarmed the skies over the Hawaiian island of Oahu and attacked the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7. 1941.

Within minutes that Sunday morning, the Arizona itself had exploded in flames, smoke and pandemonium. Conter, then a quartermaster third-class, was among the fortunate few hundred men to get off the battleship alive as it crumpled and sank at its berth, taking 1,177 of its 1,400-member crew to their deaths.

Decades later, he recounted how the enormous blast from a dive bomb, which apparently penetrated the exterior of the Arizona to ignite stores of gunpowder below decks, lifted the battleship "30 to 40 feet out of the water."

"Guys were running out of the fire and trying to jump over the sides, and oil all over the sea was burning," he recalled in an interview recorded in January 2008 for a Library of Congress oral history collection.

After abandoning ship, he and others took to the harbor in small boats to recover bodies and fight fires that continued to rage for three days.

The loss of life aboard the Arizona accounted for nearly half of the 2,390 Americans killed at Pearl Harbor and other sites around Oahu in a surprise attack that drew the United States into World War Two.

In his later years, Conter regularly joined an ever-dwindling group of aging veterans who attended annual Pearl Harbor commemorations in Hawaii. The USS Arizona Memorial, a white structure on the harbor surface, now stands astride the sunken remains of the battleship.

"Every year it brings back big memories," Conter told Reuters in a 2010 interview, ahead of the 69th anniversary. "We look at the ones still aboard the ship out there as the heroes. We're the lucky ones. We came home and got married and had kids and now grand-kids. And they're still there."

Besides those who perished at Pearl Harbor, the two-hour aerial attack wounded 1,178 people, sank or heavily damaged 12 U.S. warships and damaged or destroyed 323 aircraft, badly crippling the Pacific fleet.

Conter, who had enlisted in the Navy in 1939, went on to serve through World War II in the Pacific theater and Europe and later served in the Korean War from 1950-1953, retiring from the military as a lieutenant commander in 1967.

Soon after Pearl Harbor, Conter attended Navy flight school and in 1943 joined the "Black Cats" squadron of PBY seaplane bombers as a pilot.

Shot down during one mission in September of that year, he recalled years later, Conter kept his 10 crewmates together and got them into a lifeboat.

The group then drifted through shark-infested waters to an enemy-occupied island, where they took shelter in hiding until rescued by the crew of a passing U.S. Navy patrol boat. He returned to action days later, according to his oral history interview.

"He was a survivor," his daughter told Reuters on Monday. "He always said, 'Never give up.'"

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)