Lou Conter, last survivor of battleship targeted in Pearl Harbor, dies in California at 102

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Lou Conter, the gregarious last survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack on the USS Arizona who joined the Navy after a brief career as a teenage meat processor, died Monday at his home in Grass Valley. He was 102.

Conter enlisted in the Navy in 1939 when he was 18 years old. He was a seaman first class and a quartermaster overseeing watch-to-watch navigation on the battleship Arizona when the Japanese flew into Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He had transferred to that job because he was studious about reading manuals, and because, as he said in the autobiography “The Lou Conter Story” co-written with Annette C. and Warren R. Hull, “I knew some of the duties of a quartermaster, and I also knew they did not scrub decks.”

Before he was a quartermaster, much of his time on the battleship was taken up by “scrubbing decks, shining brass, and whatever the senior petty officer told us to do.” In Hawaii, he became a halfback on the ship’s football team, which usually played against teams from other battleships.

In November — just before the attack on Pearl Harbor — he was accepted into the Navy’s flight school in Florida, and he was waiting for the transfer. Conter wrote that he was the helmsman when the Arizona returned to Pearl Harbor Dec. 5, 1941, after maneuvers at sea. “I guided the USS Arizona to a stop,” he wrote. “Little did I know that she would remain moored in that exact spot for eternity.”

Tommy Lofton shakes hands with USS Arizona survivor Lou Conter, center, before the start of the 75th annual remembrance of the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Conter, the last survivor of the attack by the Japanese on the USS Arizona, died Monday at the age of 102, surrounded by family in Grass Valley. Pat Shannahan/USA Today Network
Tommy Lofton shakes hands with USS Arizona survivor Lou Conter, center, before the start of the 75th annual remembrance of the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Conter, the last survivor of the attack by the Japanese on the USS Arizona, died Monday at the age of 102, surrounded by family in Grass Valley. Pat Shannahan/USA Today Network

On Dec. 7, 1941, he woke up early and was planning to watch a Navy band play at 8 a.m. At about 7:55 a.m., “the sound of the band tuning up gave way to the low whine of plane engines … Everyone saw the red ball on the planes; it was the Japanese rising run, and we all knew what was happening.”

The scene was incredibly chaotic; the noise was overwhelming. After 13 minutes of the attack, the Arizona was bombed a fourth time — and this bomb went through the ship and ignited a million pounds of gunpowder and hundreds of thousands of pounds of ammunition. The ship’s bow, he wrote, raised 30 or 40 feet and then fell; it was “consumed in a giant fireball.” The water around them was slick with oil that was burning, too. The strike killed more than 1,000 people on board.

Conter tended the wounded who emerged from below deck, some of them blinded or on fire. When the lifeboats were ready, he helped get them off the ship. After the lieutenant commander gave the order for all hands to abandon ship, Conter moved to a boat to search for the wounded and the dead in the water. He said he helped pull a few survivors out of the harbor.

Then he and many fellow survivors went back to the Arizona to spend about 48 hours putting out the fire. When the ship had cooled, he was assigned to dive and pull bodies out of the battleship. After a few days of this, the Navy decided the job was too dangerous, so the men were taken off diving duty.

Conter was one of 335 sailors from his vessel to survive. A few months later, he received a commendation.

Lou Conter views the memorial wall of victims at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial during one of his many treks to the hallowed ground that triggered World War II. Conter, the last survivor of the attack by the Japanese on the USS Arizona, died Monday at the age of 102, surrounded by family in Grass Valley. Louann Daley
Lou Conter views the memorial wall of victims at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial during one of his many treks to the hallowed ground that triggered World War II. Conter, the last survivor of the attack by the Japanese on the USS Arizona, died Monday at the age of 102, surrounded by family in Grass Valley. Louann Daley

A 20th-century man

Lou Conter was born Sept. 13, 1921, to Nicholas Anthony and Lottie Esther Conter. The family moved around several times when Conter was a child and muscled through the Great Depression, settling ultimately in Colorado. In high school, the boy tried out for the football team because Conters’ family home did not have running water, and he wanted to use the showers.

As a 17-year-old high school senior, he got a job at a meat processing plant earning 30 cents an hour. At 18, he joined the Navy, with a starting wage of $17 a month.

Conter married as World War II dragged on. His wife, Katie, gave birth to their child, Edward Michael Conter, in the summer of 1945. Conter was unable to take leave for the birth. He wrote in his autobiography that he held his son for the first time when he was two and a half months old.

He had two more children with Katie — Anthony and John.

Lou Conter celebrates his 100th birthday with family in Grass Valley on Sept. 13, 2021. Conter, the last survivor of the attack by the Japanese on the USS Arizona, died Monday at the age of 102, surrounded by family in Grass Valley. Louann Daley
Lou Conter celebrates his 100th birthday with family in Grass Valley on Sept. 13, 2021. Conter, the last survivor of the attack by the Japanese on the USS Arizona, died Monday at the age of 102, surrounded by family in Grass Valley. Louann Daley

With his second wife, Virginia, he had James and Jeffrey, as well as his only daughter, Louann Daley. Conter wrote, “With all the horrible things I had seen in my life, having Louann helped soften my heart a little.”

Conter was a dedicated father. Although his military career took him away frequently, Daley said when he was home, “He took his military hat off, and he just became ‘Dad.’” He would go horseback riding with his children, and he loved to golf with his sons.

He was married to his third wife, Valerie, until her death in 2016. Daley helped set them up. With Valerie, he also gained a stepson, Ron Fudge.

Daley said Tuesday that her father hadn’t started talking openly about what he witnessed during the war until around the 50th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. Before that point, she didn’t know he had been on the Arizona.

He threw himself at storytelling with zeal.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer receives a kiss on the forehead from Lou Conter during Pearl Harbor remembrances in Phoenix in 2014. Conter, the last survivor of the attack by the Japanese on the USS Arizona, died Monday at the age of 102, surrounded by family in Grass Valley. Pat Shannahan/USA Today Network
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer receives a kiss on the forehead from Lou Conter during Pearl Harbor remembrances in Phoenix in 2014. Conter, the last survivor of the attack by the Japanese on the USS Arizona, died Monday at the age of 102, surrounded by family in Grass Valley. Pat Shannahan/USA Today Network

Conter attended almost every anniversary ceremony on Oahu until 2019, and brought a huge family entourage each time. “They called us the Contourage,” Daley said. “He just held court.”

Speaking about the horrors he saw brought him some measure of peace. Daley recalled his late wife Valerie saying that his nightmares eased once he began to open up.

Conter was very independent up until the last few years of his life, when Daley and sons Jeffrey and James Conter took turns staying with him in Grass Valley so he wouldn’t be alone. He was hospitalized Feb. 16, she said, and went home with hospice care Feb. 26. The hospice workers, Daley said, were “wonderful.”

In addition to Louann, Jeffrey, James, Tony and Ron; Conter is survived by around a dozen grandchildren and around two dozen great-grandchildren — so many that Daley gave a ballpark figure.

In the Navy, Conter flew hundreds of combat missions. He received a Distinguished Flying Cross for a rescue in New Guinea. As a lieutenant, he also flew combat missions in the Korean War and worked as an intelligence officer. He was shot down twice. He trained fellow service members in survival techniques. He served in the Navy Reserve for many years and built a career in real estate. In 1967, he retired from the military — a lieutenant commander.

However, he wrote that he considered his children his greatest accomplishment.

Lou Conter is seen with his daughter, Louann Daley, during the 75th annual remembrance of the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in 2016. Conter, the last survivor of the attack by the Japanese on the USS Arizona, died Monday at the age of 102, surrounded by family in Grass Valley. Louann Daley
Lou Conter is seen with his daughter, Louann Daley, during the 75th annual remembrance of the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in 2016. Conter, the last survivor of the attack by the Japanese on the USS Arizona, died Monday at the age of 102, surrounded by family in Grass Valley. Louann Daley