And then there was one. It is with deep regret I inform you of the passing of Boatswain’s Mate First Class Howard Kenton “Ken” Potts on 21 April 2023 at age 102. Ken was the oldest living survivor of the battleship Arizona
(BB-39), which was destroyed during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941. This leaves Lieutenant Commander Lou Conter, USN (Ret.), at age 101 as the only living survivor of Arizona
Ken Potts enlisted in the U.S. Navy on 4 October 1939 in Saint Louis, Missouri. Following completion of basic training at Great Lakes Naval Training Station, Illinois, he reported to the battleship Arizona
at San Pedro, California, on 31 December 1939 and was aboard when the Battle Fleet deployed to Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, in May 1940. While assigned to Arizona
, he served as a boatswain’s mate in Fifth Division, operating and maintaining the ship’s boats, and also worked as a crane operator. Moreover, he served as a coxswain on a ship’s boat ferrying men and material to and from the ship.
When the attack commenced, Ken was ashore, having spent the night in Honolulu. He and eight other men crammed into a cab and made it to the boat landing. He heard the explosion of his ship from a distance. He caught a boat taking men out to the ships with Battleship Row already aflame with burning oil and Japanese planes still strafing. Aboard the boat, he helped pull numerous survivors from various ships out of the water. He arrived aboard the stern of Arizona
after the catastrophic magazine explosion that sank the ship in the shallow harbor. After attempts to fight the raging fires were fruitless, he and other crewmen were ordered to abandon ship by the senior surviving officer, Lieutenant Commander Samuel Fuqua (who was awarded a Medal of Honor for his heroic actions that day), and made their way to nearby Ford Island on a boat with the many wounded men, while pulling other oil-coated survivors out of the water. Other survivors went hand-over-hand on lines to Ford Island while others swam. Ken returned to the ship later in the afternoon after the worst of the fires died down to search for survivors, but found only bodies.
Following the attack, he was assigned to the Pearl Harbor Shipyard to assist with salvage operations. He subsequently had temporary duty aboard an oiler, refueling ships outside Pearl Harbor. He was then assigned to the Port Director’s Office in Honolulu, providing port security, where he served for the duration of the war. He returned stateside in September 1945 and was honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy as a boatswain’s mate first class in 1946.
Ken would later say, “My best day in the Navy is when I survived December 7th 1941; it was also my worst day.” On that day, 1,177 of Ken’s shipmates on Arizona
died. Forty-five of the survivors chose to be reinterred with their shipmates. Ken will not be one of them, as he said, “I got off the ship once. I’m not going back.”
(There are contradictory accounts of exactly where Ken Potts was when the attack commenced. This account is based primarily on a 2020 oral history with Ken. Although he gets some of the details of the attack wrong, his memory of where he was and what he did seemed quite clear.)
Flags will be flown at half-mast over the USS Arizona
Memorial until 28 April in honor of Ken Potts.
Rest in Peace, Ken.