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In Memoriam: Lieutenant Louis A. Conter, USN (Ret.) The Last Living Survivor of USS Arizona (BB-39)

April 5, 2024 | By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command

And then there were none. It is with deep regret I inform you that U.S. Navy hero and Arizona (BB-39) survivor Lieutenant Commander Louis A. "Lou" Conter passed away on 1 April 2024 at age 102. He was the last living survivor of the battleship Arizona during the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Lou enlisted in 1939 and was a quartermaster third class during the attack. After Pearl Harbor, he went to flight school and flew 200 combat missions as an enlisted pilot in PBY Catalina “Black Cat” flying boats. He earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for his role in rescuing over 200 Australian coastwatchers on New Guinea. He survived being shot down twice: once by the Japanese and once by a U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) fighter. He served as an air intelligence officer on the aircraft carrier Bon Homme Richard (CV-31) during that ship’s 1951 Korean War deployment, flying the AD Skyraider in 29 combat missions over North Korea before the Navy banned intelligence officers from flying over enemy territory. He also established the U.S. Navy’s first survival, evasion, resistance, and escape (SERE) course and was instrumental in the developing the Navy’s formal SERE school program. Because of the skills learned in this course, Vice Admiral James Stockdale credited Lou with saving his life in Vietnam. Additional details follow in the biography below, which was written on his 100th birthday.  

Born on 13 September 1921, Louis A. Conter enlisted in the U.S. Navy in November 1939. Following boot camp in San Diego, he reported to his first ship, the battleship Arizona at Long Beach, California, as an apprentice seaman. In March 1940, Arizona and the rest of the Battle Fleet were ordered to remain at Pearl Harbor following a major fleet exercise. Lou was a striker for the quartermaster rate and was promoted to quartermaster third class. He was selected for the enlisted pilot training program and on 1 November 1941 received orders to return to the United States aboard SS Lurline for flight training at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. However, because Arizona was scheduled to return to Long Beach in December for an anti-aircraft weapons upgrade, Captain Franklin Van Valkenburgh (Arizona’s commanding officer) directed him to remain aboard the battleship for the transit back to save the Navy money. Lou was the helmsman when Arizona entered Pearl Harbor on 5 December 1941 following fleet battle training.  

On the morning of 7 December, Lou had just reported to the quarterdeck for duty as quartermaster of the watch when the first Japanese planes rolled in. As Captain Van Valkenburgh passed the quarterdeck, he directed one quartermaster second class to follow him to the bridge, and he directed Lou to remain behind and secure the quarterdeck. This was the difference between living and dying. Lou was on his way to the bridge when the fourth bomb to hit Arizona resulted in a catastrophic powder magazine explosion that killed or mortally wounded 1,177 men (of whom 1,102 were never recovered). Of those crewmen aboard the ship at the time, only 96 survived the explosion (about 239 other crewmen were ashore). During the attack, Lou rescued men from the flames, assisted in fighting fires, and helped to evacuate the wounded. After the attack, he was assigned duty as a diver to go into the sunken ship to retrieve dead bodies until it was deemed too dangerous to continue that work.  

Lou reported to Pensacola in January 1942 and completed flight training in November 1942 as a PBY-5 Catalina flying boat patrol bomber pilot. He reported to Patrol Squadron ELEVEN (VP-11)—one of the first “Black Cat” squadrons—and trained for night operations with planes painted entirely black with no markings. Deploying from Hawaii to Port Moresby, New Guinea, and Western Australia, Lou would rack up 2,000 flight hours and 200 combat missions, mostly along the northern coast of New Guinea. In September 1943, his plane was hit by Japanese ground fire, which set off the flares and forced the burning plane to crash-land in the water. He and the crew survived a day in the water, fighting off sharks before reaching the shore and hiding in the jungle until they were rescued by an underwater demolition team on a PT-boat.  

Lou would be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for valor for a series of dangerous below-treetop-level flights along the Sepik River (the opening in the jungle canopy was not much wider than the river) to covertly rescue Australian coastwatchers who had been trapped by a Japanese division’s surprise landing. Five PBY crews would ultimately rescue 219 Australians without loss. In November 1943, he received a battlefield commission to ensign. In December 1943, while attempting to rescue the crew of a USAAF B-25 bomber, Lou’s plane was shot down by one of the USAAF P-40 fighters performing rescue duty. Lou’s nose gunner was killed, but the rest of the crew survived, and the B-25 crew was rescued.  

After returning to the United States, Lou was trained in the new F7F Tigercat twin-engine carrier night fighter. The Tigercat had difficulty during carrier landing trials, and Lou was reassigned to command the first U.S. Navy radio-controlled target drone unit (TDD-1).  

Released from active duty after the end of the war, Lou remained in the U.S. Naval Reserve. During periodic activations, he received training as an air intelligence officer (AIO). After the outbreak of the Korean War, he was recalled to active duty and received flight training in the AD Skyraider single-engine attack bomber. He deployed to Korea as the air group AIO aboard Bon Homme Richard in May 1951. During this deployment, Bon Homme Richard lost 12 aircraft and 7 pilots. Lou flew 29 combat missions in the Skyraider over North Korea until the Navy banned intelligence officers from flying over enemy territory. He then flew coastal missions in support of guerilla insertion and intelligence collection missions.  

After the Korean War, Lou became the first Navy officer to attend the U.S. Army’s Special Operations School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He was promoted to lieutenant commander on 1 February 1954. In 1955, Lou established the Navy’s first SERE course at Camp McCall near Fort Bragg. He was then instrumental in establishing formal Navy SERE schools at Brunswick, Maine, and North Island, San Diego, the latter of which subsequently moved to Camp Pendleton.   

In 1958, in response to congressional complaints about how tough the SERE school was, the Bureau of Personnel (Naval Aviation) sent Commander James Stockdale to go through the course and report back. Only Lou was informed of who he was and why he was there, and Stockdale went through the course while being treated the same way as everyone else. Stockdale reported back that the course was the most demanding and challenging training he’d ever had, but also the best, and well worth it. After being released from North Vietnamese captivity in 1973, Captain Stockdale informed Lou, “Without that training, I would have never lived through my seven and a half years in a POW camp.”  

Lou attended the U.S. Naval War College in 1958–59. During the late 1950s and 1960s, although still in the Naval Reserve, he was frequently activated to participate in sensitive clandestine intelligence collection and direct action missions, which he steadfastly refused to discuss due to their classification. In unclassified assignments, he was assigned to a special task force in 1962 that recommended the establishment of the Defense Intelligence Agency. In 1963, he was part of a five-man team sent to Vietnam to conduct a comprehensive assessment; during a meeting with President John F. Kennedy, the group advised that an escalation of the war was not in the best interest of the United States. After establishing another SERE school in Hawaii, he retired as a lieutenant commander in December 1967 after 28 years of service. He then had a successful career in real estate development.  

Lou Conter was the last living survivor of the Arizona’s sinking. In December 2019, he was the speaker at the interment of the ashes of Lauren Bruner, the last Arizona survivor to return to his shipmates aboard the battleship. Lou attended the memorial service at Pearl Harbor almost every year since 1991. At the age of 99, he wrote a book with authors Annette C. Hull and Warren R. Hull, The Lou Conter Story: From USS Arizona Survivor to Unsung American Hero. Lou devoted many years to ensuring that the memory of the 2,403 Americans killed and 1,178 wounded during the attack on Pearl Harbor are not forgotten and that the United States will never be caught so unprepared again.  

Remember Pearl Harbor.