HONOLULU, Hawaii — The men of daring and bravery who 78 years ago defended Oahu and fought through the world war that followed are faithfully returning to remember Pearl Harbor and the lives that were lost or forever altered in the deadliest conflict in history.
The passage of so much time, and the passing of so many from that greatest generation, has made the arrival of the remaining few for Saturday’s anniversary that much more poignant.
The Hawaiian Airlines Airbus A321 that USS Arizona survivor Lou Conter, 98, flew in on Tuesday with nearly 50 family and friends from Sacramento, Calif., passed through a watery arch from two firetrucks at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport before pulling up to the gate.
Conter, who was on the stern of the USS Arizona on Dec. 7, 1941, when a Japanese aerial bomb pierced the bow of the battleship, igniting a million pounds of gunpowder, helped badly injured men get off the stricken ship.
A total of 1,177 men were killed on the Arizona. Today, Conter is one of just three crew still alive. He’s in Hawaii partly to be there for the interment back onto the sunken battleship of shipmate Lauren Bruner, who died Sept. 10 at age 98.
“We have to bury Lauren Bruner on Saturday, so (I) had to come back,” Conter, sitting in a wheelchair, said outside the gate room. “I’ll come out every year I can until I’m gone.”
“I’m only 98,” he added with a laugh.
Conter was surprised by the red carpet treatment he quite literally received on his flight over and on arrival. The captain and cabin crew were made up of Hawaii Air and Army National Guard members.
Nearly two dozen Pearl Harbor sailors in two long rows “piped” with a whistle the retired Navy lieutenant commander into the gate room in an honor usually reserved for high-ranking officials.
“I didn’t know I was going to have such a big party when I got here,” the always smiling Conter said.
Hawaiian Airlines employee Michael Church, a retired Navy chief, arranged to have the sailors there to render honors, noting “how unbelievable this man is.”
“It’s just the right thing to do,” Church said. More than two dozen World War II veterans are expected for Saturday’s Dec. 7 observance.
Triple ace retired Col. Clarence “Bud” Anderson, who had more than 16 kills in Europe during World War II in his P-51 Mustang, arrived on the same flight as Conter and was similarly honored.
Tom Berg, who also was expected to arrive Tuesday, helped light the boilers on the USS Tennessee as Japanese planes attacked.
Other Pearl Harbor survivors are expected to arrive today, officials said. Stuart Hedley was on the USS West Virginia. Don Long was at Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station.
Ira J. Schab is the last of 22 band-mates from the USS Dobbin and was getting ready to play morning colors when the alarm sounded. Jack Holder was in a hangar on Ford Island when the bombs began to fall.
Conter was supposed to head back to the mainland on the ocean liner Lurline in November 1941 for flight training, but the Arizona was scheduled to head to Long Beach, Calif., on Dec. 19 and his command said he could make the trip on the Arizona — which never sailed again.
He did eventually sail on the Lurline to San Francisco, went through flight school, got his wings in late 1942 and went to VP-11, the Black Cats, flying PBY Catalinas in the South Pacific.
We “did dive-bombing and torpedo runs all night long,” Conter recalled. Twice he was shot down.
Conter said he wants to be at Smith’s Union Bar on Hotel Street on Saturday night for a wake for Bruner. Both remembered the spot from their prewar days, and in recent years Bruner always tried to stop there for a few Longboard beers.
In 2014 Conter made his first return trip to Smith’s Union since 1941, when he had shore duty on Hotel Street, which was full of cathouses. He patrolled with a 6-foot-2, 240-pound sailor named Pete Hozar who took care of the troublemaker drunks.
Conter’s daughter, Louann Daley, was amazed and thankful for the respect shown to the man who’s “still just my dad.” But she jokingly said she’s willing to share her celebrity father with the public.
“He’s a hero. He’s 98 and his mind is all there,” she said. “I just hope that I can be as smart. He still drives.”
All the hoopla “is an honor,” she added. “It’s definitely an honor.”