USS Arizona Survivor Pays Tribute To Fallen Shipmates Day
(December 10, 2009)
|PEARL HARBOR (December 9, 2009 - NNS) -- Every year around Dec. 7, a Pearl Harbor survivor travels from his home in California and heads to Hawaii with his family for the annual Pearl Harbor Day memorial ceremony.|
Since 1991, Louis Conter, 88, has made these annual sojourns because of a sense of duty he feels to represent his ship, USS Arizona (BB-39), which lost 1,177 Sailors during the attack, the most casualties from any ship that day.
This year, he was the only remaining USS Arizona survivor to attend the 68th anniversary commemoration of the attack on Pearl Harbor, where he also presented a wreath in honor of his fellow shipmates.
"There are not too many of us left," Conter said. "I am one of only 18 remaining survivors who were aboard the USS Arizona on that day. And even then, only five of us are capable of traveling to Hawaii. The rest are either bedridden or in the hospital," he added.
Conter was a 20-year-old quarter master third class on watch the morning of the attacks. He said he remembered standing at his quarterdeck station, between the ship's third turret and main deck, when sirens began to sound at 7:55 a.m. as Japanese planes started bombing the harbor.
According to Conter, his most vivid memory came at 8:05 a.m. when a bomb hit an ammunition magazine located between turrets one and two, causing a massive explosion famously captured on media news reels. Conter said the blast knocked him to the deck while other Sailors were thrown off the side of the ship.
"Everything forward of the ship blew up with the magazine," he recalled. "Guys started coming out of the fire and we would lay them down on the deck because we didn't want them jumping over the sides. There was fire all around the ship and we knew if they jumped over, they would be killed anyway."
The detonation of the ship's forward magazines collapsed most of her foremast and forward superstructure, causing the ship to sink.
"On the quarterdeck, we were knee-deep in water," he remembered. "Men from other ships threw lines over to our ship so they could come aboard and help with the fire. About five of them came across before the lines burned up and the rest fell into the burning water. We were able to get some of them out, but they were badly burned."
After the first wave of Japanese planes, Conter said the ship's captain told him and remaining Sailors to abandon ship.
"When captain said 'abandon ship,' we went into life boats and started picking men out of the water and fire," he recalled. "When the second attack hit, we fought from water."
After both waves of attacks, Conter said he and surviving Sailors spent more than 10 days helping put out fires and retrieving bodies on their ship.
"We worked non-stop for days after the attack," he said. "It was hot as hell and we would work all day and all night long, but we were young and had a job to do."
During that time, Conter also worked with a dive team that had the grim task of retrieving bodies still trapped inside the ship.
"I remember we were given pumps that we would pump to get air to the divers," he said. "They were trying to get bodies out of the staterooms, but getting into the hatches made it very difficult. After retrieving a few bodies, they decided it wasn't going to work and they closed the ship down."
The remains of more than 900 Sailors are still buried inside the ship to this day. Out of a crew of 34 quartermasters who were on board the ship on Dec. 7, 1941, Conter was the only one to survive the attack.
After Pearl Harbor, he eventually earned his aviation wings as a Navy pilot, serving in one of the first PBY Black Cat Squadrons. These squadrons were known to paint their Catalina flying boats jet black and attack Japanese ships at night during World War II. Although he was shot down twice in 1943, Conter went on to enjoy a long and satisfying 23-year naval career, retiring in 1967 as a lieutenant commander.
During his recent trip to the USS Arizona Memorial, Conter said he always makes a point to walk into the shrine room, where the names of those killed on the USS Arizona are engraved on a large, marble wall.
"When I read that wall, I say a prayer for each of those guys up there," he said as he pointed out names of fellow shipmates he still remembers. "It is always heartbreaking, but there was a job that was done 68 years ago. We can't forget that."
By Navy Blair Martin
Commander, Navy Region Hawaii Public Affairs
Reprinted from Navy News Service
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