December 7, 1941: Recalling the Heroes of the 'Day of Infamy'

December 7, 1941, was a day of infamy.

It started at 7:48 a.m., when Japanese dive bombers and torpedo bombers started their runs toward U.S. warships moored in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The first wave consisted of 189 planes, 50 “Kates” carrying armor-piercing bombs (40 with torpedoes), along with 40 “Vals” carrying bombs.

The Val dive bombers were the first to hit warships and start WWII. Because there was no declaration of war, all of the subsequent Navy, Marine, and Army deaths (2,403) were, by the rules of war, “non-combatants”–essential, war crimes by Japan. Captain Mitsuo Fuchida, flying above Pearl Harbor, radioed back: Tora Tora Tora! meaning that the Americans had been caught by surprise.

Eight battleships were anchored at Pearl Harbor, including the USS Arizona. On USS Arizona were mostly junior enlisted sailors. Senior officers had on-shore quarters, and few of the ships had senior officers aboard ship. Almost all of the ships were staffed with teenage enlisted and junior officers when the attack started.

Among the Arizona’s sailors were two, 19-year-olds, Ken Potts and Lou Conter. They were blown awake by the attack. Both stayed on board, helping the wounded until ordered to abandon ship. More about both sailors later.

The attack took about an hour-and-15-minutes. News of the attacks reached the continent within minutes. In Washington, D.C., news reached politicians and diplomats after 1 p.m. No declaration of war or notice of hostilities had been received. The Japanese embassy was slow in decrypting the message intended to be derived to the Secretary of State, before the attack started.

It was a day of infamy and a day of heroism: 15 Medals of Honor were awarded, along with 51 Navy Crosses and 53 Silver Stars. The 2,403 men who died 81 years ago were mostly teenage sailors, 1,077 of whom were aboard the USS Arizona.

My father was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Washington on December 7, 1941. He was in the sitting room of the Kappa Fraternity with other young men when one of his Kappa “brothers” rushed in. “Pearl Harbor is under attack!” All those men realized that they would soon be enlisting. Some enlisted the next day. Many of them never came home.

My father enlisted in the Marines. He island-hopped with the 22nd Marine Regiment, and then with the 6th Marine Division, ending his combat service on Okinawa.

Lou Conter signed up for flight school following the Pearl Harbor attack and flew PBY patrol bombers. Conter flew 200 combat missions with a squadron called the “Black Cats,” named for the black-painted hulls of their night-fighting bombers. In 1943, Conter’s plane was shot down close to New Guinea; the crew ended up in the water along with a dozen sharks and no lifeboat.

One of his crew members started to panic and said they wouldn’t survive the night. “Baloney!” cried Conter. “Don’t ever panic in any situation. Don’t panic or you’re dead.” He and his crew all survived. Conter stayed in the Navy after WWII.

In the late 1950s, Conter was tapped to lead the Navy’s new SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, and escape) program as its first officer in charge. SERE was his job for the next decade. Some of the men he trained were later captured in Vietnam, and they credited Conter with their survival as POWs. Conter retired as a Lieutenant Commander.

For the 81st anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, Pearl Harbor will not see the two last, surviving crew members from the USS Arizona. Now 101-year-old Conter has been advised by his doctor to not make the trip this year.

And fellow shipmate Ken Potts can’t make it either, as Conter explained. “There are two of us still living from the Arizona,” he told the AP in a new interview from his home in Grass Valley, California, “Ken Potts and myself. He lives in Provo, UT.  He’s six months older than I am, and his legs are not in good shape.”

Conter says later in the AP interview he’s “no hero,” insisting the men who died that day are the heroes. With all due respect, sir. You are a hero as well.

Wednesday will, again, be a day of remembrance at Pearl Harbor, but without a single survivor from the USS Arizona. Since the USS Arizona was sunk at its mooring, 81 years ago, no Navy ship has been named after the state of Arizona.

That is, until today. On December 7, 2022, the keel of a Virginia-class fast attack submarine will be laid.

The date is no coincidence. The SSN-803 will be named, “Arizona.”

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