First remembrance without a USS Arizona survivor present
Just before 8 a.m. Honolulu time on Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese fighter planes and bombers shattered the Sunday quiet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. It was an attack on the United States that thrust America into World War II.
Despite a radiogram that was urgently pushed to all U.S. military in the area — “AIRRAID ON PEARL HARBOR X THIS IS NO DRILL” — the surprise attack destroyed or damaged more than a dozen American ships and hundreds of aircraft.
More than 2,400 Americans were killed. But it was the USS Arizona that suffered the greatest human loss: Of the 1,512 on board at the time, only about 300 survived. The ship rests, sunken, at the bottom of the harbor — along with the remains of hundreds of victims.
Over the decades, those who were able to escape the Arizona before it sank have been a fixture at memorials and events marking the attack, a day which has indeed lived in infamy.
But on Friday, for the first time in more than seven decades, there were no survivors from the Arizona present when officials commemorated the 77th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
There are only five Arizona survivors still alive: Lauren Bruner, 98; Lou Conter, 97; Lonnie Cook, 98; Ken Potts, 97; and Don Stratton, 96. None were able to travel to Honolulu this year, The Associated Press reported.
The Arizona Republic newspaper in 2014 visited all remaining USS Arizona survivors — there were nine still alive at the time — and published extensive interviews with the aging veterans. What emerged were moving stories and remembrances of an attack that had altered their lives.
Most could still recall vivid details about that Sunday morning — although a few, even decades later, could not bring themselves to talk about their fellow shipmates who were unable to escape.
For years, elderly survivors of the Arizona battleship faithfully returned to Pearl Harbor to participate in ceremonies to remember the attack. As in past years, Friday’s events included U.S. fighter planes flying over the harbor in a “Missing Man” formation and the ringing of the Arizona’s bell.
Potts described the memorial to the attack in Oahu — the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument — as “one of the best actual memorials I’ve seen,” according to The Republic.
Ray Chavez, previously the oldest known survivor, died less than three weeks ago at age 106. In May, Chavez visited President Donald Trump at the White House, which tweeted a remembrance of the veteran after his passing.
“We’re lucky to have five Arizona survivors left,” Daniel Martinez, chief historian for the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser newspaper. “At their age of 95-plus, it’s remarkable that they’ve had that longevity, and it keeps us still secured to the idea that someone could tell us what happened — because they witnessed it.”
But the passing of each Arizona survivor is a bittersweet reminder that we are increasingly further removed from one of the most viscerally shocking events in history.
There are less than 500,000 veterans of World War II still living, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; about 348 WWII veterans are dying each day.
“It makes me afraid that we’re going to distance ourselves from what happened,” Pearl Harbor visitor Kasey Cross told Hawaii News Now.
Conter, one of the five living Arizona survivors, said “doctor’s orders” prevented him from making the trip from his home in Grass Valley, Calif., to Pearl Harbor this year. “I’ll be going back next year,” he vowed.