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Tom Cleaver
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Last living survivor of USS Arizona passes

April 1, 2024 · in News · · 22 · 379

Lou Conter, the last living survivor on board the USS Arizona during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, has died. He was 102. He had been in hospice for the past four weeks. Conter died Monday morning while surrounded by family in Grass Valley, California, his daughter confirmed

Conter was only 18 when he enlisted in the United States Navy. The Germans had just invaded Poland, and war was on the horizon."I said, 'OK, I'll sign up,' so I signed up for four years, and I was going to leave at 5:45 that night." After boot camp, the Denver native was assigned to the USS Arizona. "March of 1940, the fleet went north of Hawaii for exercises," he said. The fleet ended up docking at Pearl Harbor. The Arizona was one of 100 ships anchored to the piers. Conter worked as a quartermaster. He was at his post on a warm December morning in 1941.

"It was five minutes to 8, and the first plane came across," Conter said.

What happened next is something he and America vividly remember more than 80 years later.

"As soon as they came in, we knew what was happening,” Conter said. “We knew for six months we were training hard for fighting the Japanese at war. They were dive bombing, and they were right down the ship's edge. We didn't have time to look up and see what was coming. They were already right down at the water's edge. It lasted for about 40 minutes. We took a 50-60-hundred-pound bomb alongside the number two turret. It went through five decks in the forward lower handling room and blew the power up there for the number one and number two turret, and the whole bow came up out of the water."

Thick black smoke quickly filled the Oahu sky. The bombs just kept falling.

“Guys were coming out of the fire, and we were just grabbing them and laying them down,” Conter said. “They were real bad. You would pick them up by the bodies, and the skin would come off your hands."

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 conducted dive bombing at night in planes painted black.

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

“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 quiet and treaded water until another plane came hours later and dropped them a lifeboat.

In the late 1950s, he was made 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 pupils used his lessons as POWs in Vietnam. Conter retired in 1967 after 28 years in the Navy.

Conter had hoped to make one last trip to Hawaii in December but decided he didn't have the strength to do so. "They call a lot of us heroes, and I've always said we are not the heroes. Heroes are the ones right there that day that lost their lives. They gave everything up. We got back to the States. We got married. We had kids and grandkids. We are still here. They were lost forever right then and there."

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22 responses

  1. Thanks, TC, for this meaningful & worthwhile piece. A true patriot, Lou was made of tough stuff.

  2. My parents took all six of us kids to visit the USS Arizona Memorial back in the 70's and I suspect they wanted us to appreciate, respect, and honor guys like Lou Conter. What an amazing patriot, may he RIP.

    Thanks for posting this, Tom.

  3. What an incredible man. God bless him.

  4. Sorry, but what has this got to do with iModeler? There are heroes in every walk of life of every nationality. One of my particular heroes was Niki Lauda but do I go on about it?

    • Wow George, I don't understand you on this.This guy was a tough American hero, a survivor, a great defender of his country. And a part of history. History has everything to do with much of what iModeler is. We remember it when we build.
      What scares me is how fast history is passing. There are so few WW2 vets left. They must be remembered.
      RIP Lou Conter. once tough, always tough.

    • Niki Lauda chose to put himself in danger in a sport. Lou Conter chose to serve his country. How dare you compare a playboy F1 driver to a simple man who faced dangers from an enemy war machine versus a race track. Shame on you!

      • Hi Jim,

        While I agree your point of view wholeheartedly, I just wanna correct one thing: Niki Lauda doesn't quite fit the "playboy F1 driver" image like James Hunt was back in those "good old days". He is a professional and self-disciplined driver, similar to Alain Prost and Mika Häkkinen. Niki was brave enough to stop (not taking unnecessary risks) when he felt the condition is dangerous...the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix championship decider immediately comes to mind.

        Again, comparing racing driver with a soldier who served his/her country bravely in war never works.

    • George:

      Any reading of the comments sections of most of the model posts on iModeler will clearly reveal hat the majority of members here either got interested in modeling out of an interest in military history, or got interested in military history from their involvement with modeling. For most of the members, regardless of where they come from,posts about people like Lou Conter reflect those interests.

    • Hi George,

      I am not sure what had triggered you to make such comments, but I think the comparison is not fair:

      • Heroes come in all sort of shapes and forms, so one's hero may not be a hero in other people's eyes. This is normal, but there is no need to berate other people's choice of heroes regardless of how you define "hero".

      • Racing drivers are paid to do the driving, which involves a high level of risk that might lead to death, and they accept it as part of the job. They go after the glory of being the champion over a season, which is personal stuff at best. But serving his/her own country during war is at a completely different level, way beyond chasing after personal glory. A racing driver knows that there will be a 2-3 month break for them to rest/work on training once the season is over, but a war-time soldier affords no such luxury, and some of them died before they even turned 20. So your comparison is deeply flawed to begin with.

      • Although I am not familiar with Lou Conter and his story, but thanks to Tom's post I now know what had happened to him during and after Pearl Harbour, and that 's a learning experience that modelers love. What Lou did on that fateful day went beyond winning driver's championship...he served his country in the most dangerous job on the earth, and saved his countrymen when U.S. was under attack by enemy...many of his mates never had the chance to go home and raise families. Without sacrifices from him and million others who fought against the enemies I am not sure what we would be doing right now.

      Don't get me wrong...being a Canadian my F1 hero is Gilles Villeneuve, but I only compare him with other F1 drivers from the same era, and F1 drivers only. Comparing apple with orange never works.

      Giving veterans the rightful respect is the least we can do after enjoying so many years of peaceful time in our corners of the world. Try say the same comments you posted to those Ukrainian soldiers who currently fight for their country's survival, and think how they will respond to your definition of "hero".

      That's my 2 cents, and I am more than happy to "agree to disagree" if you still think my responses are off the mark.

      Happy modelling!

  5. Wow @chinesegeorge if you can’t appreciate the significance and value of the people that lived and died amongst the vehicles, planes, and tanks we modelers make, then maybe you model for the wrong reasons. Show some respect. This gentlemen is not only the last survivor of PH, but also one of the last of his entire generation. One that millions upon millions of modelers spend every moment of their time and energy modeling, even if they are unaware of the gravity of what they are trying to emulate. Having a CMH recipient in WW2 as my grandfather, I thank you @tcinla for posting this. It’s significant.

  6. Fair winds and following seas good Sir. Now may you join all your shipmates who reported for another posting on 7 Dec 1941.

    March 19th in Oregon we lost another survivor of Pearl Harbor, Richard 'Dick' Higgins also at the age of 102. With this passing there are only 21 known survivors of Pearl Harbor still alive.

    2 attached images. Click to enlarge.

  7. Blue Skies, Lou.
    Thanks for posting it, Tom.

  8. May he rest in peace.
    Thanks for telling us, Tom.

  9. Thanks for posting this, TC. It's very interesting & a BIG part of our history. Even though it's not about modeling, per se', most of our models ARE - in one way or another. He WAS part of our history.

  10. Praise to all respondents in favor of Tom Cleaver's posting on Lou Conter; thanks for your well-stated thoughts.
    It's crystal that 99.9% of those who visit this informative site not only care deeply about our hobby, as patriots, they love their country...big time.

  11. What a great story! 👍 I had just read about Mr. Conter's passing in the Austin newspaper and now I see Tom's wonderful tribute; many thanks for bringing this sad news to others' attention, Tom @tcinla! 🥃

    Men, and women, like Lou Conter, saved our bacon back then, and today we owe all that we have and enjoy to their efforts. I'd say that has everything to do with iModeler. 😉

  12. God bless him and everyone involved with that war. Both of my Grandfathers were WW2 veterans and I lost both of them many years ago now, and i miss them greatly. It makes me sad to think how most of these men and women are leaving us now, and how stories and how much history there taking with them. I think the world will be much worse off never gettine to hear all their stories, but we need to hear them. Luckily Mr. Conter's memories were taken down for us all. God's speed to him and God bless them all.

  13. God Speed Mr. Conter thank you for your service!

  14. May he rest in peace. Lest we Forget.

  15. TY for posting this story, Mr. Cleaver. RIP Mr. Conter. It's one thing to see a list of names on a wall or plaque but it's another thing to read and appreciate what these guys went through, especially on days like December 7th. While I haven't been to see the Arizona Memorial or Pearl Harbor (yet) it's on the bucket list.

  16. God bless him!

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