Alta Sierra man one of few remaining Pearl Harbor survivors
More than 70 years after Nevada County resident Lou Conter stood on the deck of the USS Arizona as a Japanese bomb pierced the ship’s innards, causing the single deadliest blow during the Pearl Harbor attack in Hawaii, the long-serving veteran has returned to the ship.
Conter, 92, is one of nine remaining survivors of the USS Arizona, where 1,177 of the 1,512 crewmen on board were killed — nearly half of the U.S. servicemen killed in action on Dec. 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor.
“That day, the seventh, is not for us. We lived. We came back from the war. We made it out, got married, had children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” Conter said. “I don’t think that day is for us. That day is for the 2,403 that lost their lives that day.”
The pivotal blow to the Arizona blew out the ship’s side and conning tower, and much of the superstructure dropped several feet into the ship’s wrecked hull, according to the Navy’s History and Heritage Command.
“This tipped her foremast forward, giving the wreck its distinctive appearance,” the Navy’s account reads about the ship that still rests iconically on its side at the site of the attack.
Historians have long debated the factors compounding the massive explosion that stemmed from a bomb that penetrated next to the Arizona’s forward turrets into the ship’s bowels. What is known is that the explosion emanated from the vicinity of forward Turret II. Conter, a 20-year-old who was standing near Turrets III and IV, remembers holding onto the railing when the explosion jolted part of the ship 30 or 40 feet out of the water before it settled back down, only to spend unsung hours saving his compatriots from the inferno.
“There were fires burning, and some men were wanting to jump over the side into the water, but the water was burning, too,” Conter recalls. “We helped fight the fire and dove on the ship for about 10 days.”
Conter will be back at the site, at the USS Arizona Memorial above the still-sunken ship in the harbor. He has made the trip several times in recent years to attend memorial ceremonies. On those trips, he has been accompanied by family and friends, who make something of a vacation out of it. This year, he is accompanied by nearly two dozen people.
Yet Conter still takes a moment alone to pay tribute. “When I first go aboard the ship, you got to take a breath. It’s a shock, you know. You walk in, and the names are on the wall,” Conter said.
“I stand there, say a prayer for them, salute them, and then I walk outside where the people are. That moment is tough. But you take a breath, say a prayer and thank God you are alive.”
Conter went on to become a pilot who flew numerous dangerous missions over hostile territories in the Pacific Theater and survived being shot down twice before going on to a long Navy career and a 1967 retirement.
“We have to remember that Pearl Harbor was only two and half hours of a three and a half-, four-year war,” Conter said.
On one of those flight missions, he dropped supplies to crews rescuing an injured member of the U.S. Army Air Corps, Fred Hargesheimer, a longtime Grass Valley resident who was shot down by Japanese forces in 1943.
Hargesheimer, who parachuted to safety and survived 31 days in the jungle — protected by local villagers — before he was rescued, wrote a book about his exploits and founded a school in Papua, New Guinea, in honor of the villagers’ help — a school the 49er Breakfast Rotary Club of Nevada City traveled to in 2011 to set up dental clinics.
In 2001, Conter was at a Grass Valley coffee shop when he noticed a man wearing a New Guinea golf cap. After seeing the man several more times, Conter asked Hargesheimer when he played golf there, and the two realized their connection, constituting their first actual meeting.
“What are the odds of that?” Conter said. “To meet at a Grass Valley coffee shop more than 60 years after, it was really interesting.”
Hargesheimer died in 2010, one of many Conter has seen go in recent years.
“It’s been tough the last three years because we’ve had so many burials,” Conter said. “I’ve had to officiate three or four of them. And we have another burial this year.”
Conter will be one of the remaining survivors attending memorial services at the Arizona memorial today, where he, too, plans to one day have his own remains interred.
“We never forget it, but we are able to carry it,” Conter said. “When you are in something like that, you never forget.”
To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4236.
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