Local veteran interviews one of the last survivors of Pearl Harbor

Nov 11, 2023 at 10:19 pm by Observer-Review

Michael Ariano, Louis Conter
BY Karen Gadiel
An anchor has been recovered and is on display at the memorial. What’s left of the USS Arizona lies at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, a war grave. At 8:08 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, an unexpected barrage of bombs launched by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service hit the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Four of them hit the USS Arizona.
One bounced on a gun turret faceplate, barreled through the ship’s top deck and finally exploded three decks down. Three to four other bombs missed. Another struck the port side of the ship near the anti-torpedo bulkhead. A third and fourth hit the starboard deck, one of these passing through five steel decks before exploding near the forward lower handling room, the battle station of 20-year-old former farm-boy Louis Conter, who was, luckily, elsewhere at that time.
Today, Conter is the last living survivor of the USS Arizona.
“The sound of the last was massive and unlike anything I had ever heard before or since,” Conter wrote later. “The bow of the ship, all 24,000 tons, raised about 30 to 40 feet out of the water and just as fast settled down into the bottom of the channel. The bow went up so far you could look down and see ships underneath. The ship was consumed in a giant fireball that looked as if it engulfed everything from the mainmast forward.” Fourteen minutes after the first planes were spotted, 1,177 of the Arizona crew were dead. Many more were injured.
Conter went to work rescuing his dead and injured colleagues, then worked at fighting the fires—which he recalls as at least a two-day job. From there he went to shore patrol. “And we stayed up for five days,” he said.
Part-time Alpine resident Michael Ariano, an Army reservist who works at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. as a strategic planner, returned to school a few years ago to earn his masters in military history. He developed a strong interest in primary sources of history, recording the recollections of veterans who were present at significant, historic conflicts and who can present the facts of what happened without the buffer of secondary interpretation.
When Ariano learned of Conter, and read his book, The Lou Conter Story: From USS Arizona Survivor to Unsung American Hero (co-written with Annette and Warren Hull) he knew he wanted to meet Conter. However, Conter, now 102 years old, tired too easily to sustain a lengthy interview, his caregiver said, so Ariano flew to California to ask a few questions in person. He was initially limited to two, but it was a trip he knew he wanted to take.
The first, question, whose answer is above, was about Conter’s recollections of the explosion. Ariano also likes to ask those he interviews at least one unexpected question, so his second question was about segregation in the Navy. From previous conversations with World War II army veterans, he knew white soldiers and black soldiers rarely saw each other. But Conter told him on the Arizona, everyone worked together.
Ariano explains he asked that question because his master’s thesis centered on the topic of why the U.S. Army was still segregated during World War II. Things were different in the U.S. Navy.
After his time at Pearl Harbor, Conter was able to go to flight school, and flew with the “Black Cats,” a stealth unit that attacked Japanese shipping during the night from PBY Catalinas painted black. He flew more than 200 missions. “He seemed to take a lot of pride in this unit,” Ariano says. “And he did not worry about getting shot down while attacking a ship, even though U.S. planes were often counter-attacked. “We flew 50 feet over the water so they couldn’t go under us. They were [flying at] about 2,500 feet. When you dropped a 500-pound bomb in the middle of a ship, the whole thing would blow up.”
Conter has been honored several times in recent years, most recently this year with a letter of commendation signed by California Governor Gavin Newsom, and a congressional resolution honoring him - introduced by his Congressman, Kevin Kiley.
In all, Ariano had 20 memorable minutes with Conter, for which he is immensely appreciative. “I cannot express how kind and open Mr. Conter and his daughter were to me,” Ariano says. “They let me, a complete stranger, meet him and ask him questions. I was deeply touched by their warmth and generosity.” At the conclusion of their meeting, Ariano gave Conter a coin he’d brought back as a souvenir from his deployment in Iraq.
Ariano has experienced six deployments, including tours in Afghanistan, Kuwait and Kosovo. He said recently he thought his own military experience created a bond of trust when he talked with Conter. He’s hoping to eventually teach military history, which in turn has much to offer those who study it. For Ariano, it’s “Learning from the past to set yourself up for the present.” Of course, it’s possible to learn from the past, he says, but it’s as important to confirm what you’ve read with the lived experience of people who’ve experienced a conflict first-hand.
“The biggest the best thing you can take [from history] is problem-solving,” Ariano says. “To come to an agreement, you need to understand the roots of a problem. In world affairs, you need people like me and you need to talk to veterans like Lou Conter.”
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