A day of infamy: USS Arizona survivor and Grass Valley resident reflects on Pearl Harbor Day (PHOTO GALLERY)
Special to the Sierra Sun
Grass Valley resident, retired Lt. Cmdr. Louis A. Conter, is a popular man year-round.
Members of his “Contourage” (as Conter’s family and close friends call themselves) are always checking in on the 99-year-old World War II veteran.
But as one of two remaining USS Arizona survivors still alive, and with Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day approaching Monday, Conter is ever more the center of attention.
Conter has been busy recalling some of his many experiences to writers and national news media from across the country.
From stories of diving into the wreckage of the USS Arizona in efforts to save and recover his fellow sailors, to evading cannibals in New Guinea while rescuing 219 Australian Coastwatchers as a VP-11 Black Cat pilot, Conter has been recalling them all.
This year, commemorating the 2,390 total American service members and civilians killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor — including the 1,177 that died on the USS Arizona — will be different as there will be no public ceremony due to COVID-19.
Instead, recorded interviews with Conter and others will be played as part of a program taking the place of in-person events Monday morning.
TV news stations are also hoping to reach Conter Monday to broadcast a live interview.
While Conter admits that some interviews can be tiring at his age, he continues to make himself available to others, recounting his many stories — all of which he says were just part of his duty.
“We were supposed to leave for Hawaii yesterday,” Conter said regarding the cancelled Pearl Harbor Day plans.
“We’ll go for the 80th (anniversary) next year, God willing,” Conter said. “We’ll be over the (corona)virus by then I hope, with everyone vaccinated.”
Conter has faith in the vaccine and plans to take it as soon as it becomes available to him, though he and those close to him feel he may have some resistance to COVID-19 after his bout with malaria, which he was treated for while serving in New Guinea.
Returning from last year’s Pearl Harbor Day ceremonies, members of Conter’s party became very ill with a flu that they believe was the coronavirus. All but Conter and one other member of the party, both of which were treated for malaria in the 1940s, became ill.
“I think personally, a year ago last December, Linda and I were the only two that did not get the bad flu, which I think was the (corona)virus. The reason they think was because we had malaria,” Conter said.
“I think the vaccine is good, but I heard last night that they’re, rightfully so, giving it to the hospital staff, nurses and the rest homes and then they’re going to start giving to those over 75,” Conter said.
“I guess I’m over 75, so I’ll be getting the shot.”
“I was only down for three days in New Guinea with malaria, then went to flying all night long,” Conter said.
Of all of Conter’s recognitions and awards, being inducted into the Heritage International Pilots Association’s Hall of Honor for his work rescuing the 219 Coastwatchers out of the jungles of New Guinea is his most revered.
“That plaque of honor is one of my greatest presents,” Conter said. “To me that’s more honorable than my distinguished flying cross.”
During one VP-11 Black Cat mission in September 1943, Conter and crew were shot down off the coast of New Guinea.
“We got shot down, spent time in the water, finally got in the life boat, got into the jungles of New Guinea and hid that night and the next day from the Japanese,” Conter recalled of his time as a Navy pilot over New Guinea. “A PT boat came and picked us up. We went back to the tender (a ship) at 8 o’clock in the morning and had breakfast. Later that night, the rest of that day and the next night we turned another PBY and we went off another 13.5 hours on a dive bomb of the Japanese fleet. That’s just the way we flew back then.”
While awaiting the lifeboat, floating in the waters off New Guinea, Conter and his fellow servicemen would become surrounded by sharks. He demonstrated and instructed the crew to punch the sharks in the nose to keep from getting bit.
Conter’s expertise and cool in times of difficulty would eventually elevate him to intelligence officer. He’d create and oversee the SERE or Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape program for the U.S. military in Vietnam.
A seven-year prisoner of war, Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was shot down in Vietnam, credited Conter’s training to his survival.
“’Thank you for being so tough,’” Conter recalled Stockdale say of his training years after Vietnam. “’Without it I wouldn’t have survived seven years as a POW.’”
From advising John F. Kennedy in his short lived presidency, to being friends with Shirley Temple and many other famous figures, Conter has a multitude of stories that could fill volumes.
In fact, one such publication, “The Louis Conter Story,” by Annette C. Hull and Warren R. Hull, is expected to be released and available for purchase through Amazon by mid-December.
“We don’t talk about it much,” Conter said of his service. “We’re not heroes, we just did what we were trained to do.”
Aside from Conter, Ken Potts living in Provo, Utah, is the other remaining survivor of the USS Arizona.
Both Potts and Conter still keep in touch to this day.
Elias Funez is a Multimedia Reporter with The Union, a sister publication to the Sierra Sun. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 530-477-4230.
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