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Last survivor of USS Arizona, dead at 102, is recalled for commitment to country, strong faith

USS Arizona survivor Lou Conter gestures to a fellow survivor during the wreath laying presentation for the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument in Honolulu Dec. 6, 2011. Conter, 102, a Catholic member of the Knights of Columbus and the last survivor of the USS Arizona destroyed in the Japanese Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, passed away April 1, 2024. (OSV News photo/Hugh Gentry, Reuters)

(OSV News) — By any measure, Louis Anthony “Lou” Conter, a Catholic hero of World War II who died April 1 at his home in Grass Valley, California, at age 102, led a celebrated life.

Conter’s funeral Mass will be celebrated April 23 at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Grass Valley, followed by burial with full military honors.

Born in Ojibwa, Wisconsin, on Sept. 13, 1921, Conter graduated from high school in Colorado. He escaped a hardscrabble life — at age 7, he hunted rabbits in Kansas, where his family was living, in order to provide dinner — and a job in a Hormel meatpacking plant by enlisting in the Navy in 1939.

He served for 28 years, retiring at the rank of lieutenant commander, the highest rank possible for someone with a high school diploma.

As a quartermaster on the battleship USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Conter was one of only 335 crewmen and officers aboard to survive the assault by Japanese fighter pilots, bombers and torpedo planes that sank it on Dec. 7, 1941, launching the United States into World War II.

The sailors and Marines killed aboard numbered 1,177. The Arizona casualties amounted to nearly half of the 2,403 U.S. personnel, including 68 civilians, who died that day.

Conter was at his station at the stern when he first heard the Japanese fighter planes at around 8 a.m.

In 2023, he became the Arizona’s last survivor. For many years, he was a welcome figure at military ceremonies commemorating the attack.

“When I walk aboard the USS Arizona Memorial and see those 1,177 names up there, I have to make the sign of the cross and say a prayer for them,” he told a Knights of Columbus interviewer in 2022. “And I thank God my name is on the plaque outside with the survivors.”

He sometimes credited his survival that day to the prayers of his older sister Mary Margaret, who as Sister Mary Esther joined the Sisters of Loretto in 1940 and made her final vows in 1946.

She taught elementary school across several states, ministered to patients at the Colorado state mental health hospital in Pueblo, where she was based, and did not retire until 2002. She died in 2010 at the order’s motherhouse infirmary in Kentucky at age 90. Conter’s younger sister, Esther Piper, died in Colorado in 2007 at age 84.

Selected for flight training, Conter flew some 200 combat missions as a dive bomber in the Pacific during the war and was shot down twice. The first time, in 1943, when he and his crew were treading water seven miles off the coast of New Guinea, he advised them that if a shark approached, “just punch it in the nose.” A couple did, they were, and Conter and his crew were rescued after another plane dropped a life raft.

He was an intelligence officer during the Korean War, served in special operations and notably helped establish the Navy’s SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) program, training Navy pilots and crew how to survive if they were shot down in the jungle and captured as prisoners of war.

After leaving the Navy in 1967, he settled in California and became a successful real estate developer, and some of his happiest memories involved playing golf as an amateur in the Bob Hope Desert Classic in Indian Wells, where he played seven times.

The stress of his military career, Conter conceded, took a toll on his first two marriages, which ended in divorce, but he found stability with his third wife, Valerie. She died in 2016 after 47 years of marriage. He was the father of six children.

He met Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy, and his passing earned a statement from President Joe Biden:

“The women and men who serve in the U.S. Armed Forces are patriots in the highest sense. Like Lou, they risk their own safety for the safety of their fellow Americans. Like Lou, they bravely undertake dangerous missions to defend our nation’s freedom and future. Like Lou, they believe deeply in their duty to their country and their fellow service members and will go to the ends of the earth to fulfill that duty.”

Despite his reputation for unremitting self-discipline and toughness considered typical by men of his generation, parishioners of St. Patrick in Grass Valley remember a gentle man.

Before the COVID pandemic disrupted communal worship for a time, he was a familiar figure at the 9 a.m. Mass, always in the same pew, always sitting on the right side, wearing a Hawaiian shirt when it was warm, a flannel one when it was cold.

His family recalled him praying the rosary at his bedside each night.

Conter’s faith, like Conter himself, was humble, said Ray Saturnino, the past grand Knight of Father Nicholas Phelan Council 1875 of the Knights of Columbus.

“He had genuine respect for his country and the general commitment he gave to his country,” Saturnino told OSV News.

And Conter’s advice for his fellow Knights was, “You don’t have to show up for all the council meetings. Can you commit to doing one thing?”

Conter usually kept his war stories, which he was inevitably asked for, on the light side.

Saturnino said one memory was “he couldn’t get bourbon in the South Pacific, so he switched to Scotch.”

But he also was unafraid to get salty when asked about his classified military activities. Saturnino said he once snapped at an admiral who asked about a classified Cold War mission, “I am not telling you! I made a commitment to my oath!”

Surviving are sons Tony Conter, Jim Conter and Jeff Conter, daughter Louann Conter Daley, and a stepson, Ron Fudge. Sons Michael and John preceded him in death.

Kurt Jensen reports for OSV News from Washington.

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