Skip to main content

Banner News

Pearl Harbor 2019 – Ohana is the reason

Dec 19, 2019 11:45AM

Lou Conter and Stan Cromlish in the Shrine Room of the USS Arizona Memorial. Photo by Stan Cromlish

Editor’s Note- Belmont historian and author Stan Cromlish recently returned from his annual trip to Pearl Harbor where he attended events commemorating the Dec. 7, 1941 attack by Japanese air and naval forces that drew America into WWII. This year marked the 78th anniversary of the “date that will live in infamy”.

By Stan Cromlish

As I sit in the Daniel K Inouye Airport in Honolulu, waiting to board my flight home, I understand why I have come to Hawai’i the past four Decembers. To reconnect with the people who have gone from mere acquaintances in 2016 to full-fledged ohana, the Hawaiian term for family, in 2019.

In October 2016, I saw that the 75th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor was upcoming in December of that year. I knew I needed to be there to understand the history of the place and time that drew America into World War II. I booked my ticket and made my hotel reservations, and on Friday, December 2, 2016, embarked on what I figured would be a single trip to the island of Oahu. Boy, was I wrong!

On Sunday morning, December 4, 2016, I met the Eagle Scouts of Troop 13, Newcastle, California, who were in Hawaii supporting Lt. Commander Louis A Conter, a USS Arizona Survivor. Little did I know that this chance encounter would lead me to return to Hawaii in 2017, 2018, and 2019 because of friendships forged during that first year turned into family ties.

In December 2017, I met Mary Johanson and her niece Erika and Erika’s son, Zion. My friendship with Mary and her family widened my circle to include the entire Conter family. These relationships have blessed me beyond measure because of the love of family that emanates from every Pearl Harbor survivor. That’s what’s amazing about the survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor; they became a family that day because of the experiences they shared.

In December 2017, I also met JoeAnn Taylor at the ceremony honoring her father, Chief Boatswain’s Mate Joe George. Chief George earned the Bronze Star with Valor for his actions on December 7, 1941, resulting in the rescue of six more men from the burning USS Arizona. Those men were Donald Stratton, Harold Kuhn, Alvin Dvorak, Earl Riner, Lauren Bruner, and Ronnie Lott. If not for this ceremony, I would never have met JoeAnn and her husband, Gary, and never

learned about the man who threw the rope that saved six lives that day.

In December 2018, the world of Pearl Harbor was a little darker because none of the men of the USS Arizona could make the trip of remembrance due to illness and age. But, JoeAnn Taylor and her family made the trip. On December 5, 2018, JoeAnn and her family toured Pearl Harbor aboard a United States naval vessel.  The tour retraced the path her father’s ship, the USS Vestal, took that fateful December day. Daniel Martinez narrated the story of the Vestal and its captain, Cassin Young. The story brought that day to life in such a way you could almost smell the burning flesh and feel the heat emanating from the normally tranquil waters of Pearl Harbor.

The Pearl Harbor National Monument had its share of problems in 2018 because of structural issues with the dock and supporting structures next to the USS Arizona Memorial. For the entirety of 2018, visitors were unable to visit the memorial, and the NPS Superintendent, Jacqueline Ashwell, took a lot of heat for the situation. But, she deserves a whole lot of credit for recognizing what others did not during those trying times. The required fixes needed to take into account that 1) the memorial sits atop a war grave, 2) the memorial cannot touch the ship, and 3) the repair should be as permanent as possible. She accomplished this at a fraction of the cost because time was taken to get it right the first time.

December 2019 saw Lou Conter return to Pearl Harbor in great health and ready to visit his 1,177 shipmates who remain entombed aboard the USS Arizona. Lou arrived about 11:30 am Hawaii time, Tuesday, December 3, to a greeting reserved for visiting dignitaries and Presidents. Hawaiian Airlines, the Honolulu Fire Department, and the United States Navy gave Lou the red carpet treatment as his son, Jim Conter, wheeled him off his flight from Sacramento. From the water-cannon salute to the Naval Honor Guard, Lou was overwhelmed by the attention he received upon arrival. When the news media asks about that day, Lou is quick to deflect attention back to the men and women killed in the attack and those unable to return for the annual ceremonies of remembrance. His quote is always, “I was just doing my job.”

December 7, 2019, found Lou and his family gathered in the lobby of the Hale Koa Hotel at 5:00 am. The Park Service and the Navy require everyone to be seated by 6:45 am for the ceremonies that start promptly at 7:55 am, the time the first bomb fell on Pearl Harbor. Upon arrival at the Pearl Harbor National Monument, the crowd of well-wishers and media alike swarmed Lou to get a soundbite, picture, or an interview for Good Morning America, The Today Show, or the local nightly news. Lou, as always, graciously honors every request until it is time to take his seat on the dais behind the speakers. This year’s ceremony is the first time that the Pearl Harbor Survivors are seated behind the dais on a stage instead of in the first few rows of covered seating.

The sun was bright as it rose, and the speakers from Jacqueline Ashwell to Secretary of the Interior Bernhardt spoke of the glimmers of victory that began to sparkle from mid-1942 through December 1944. From the Doolittle Raid in April 1942 to the victories at Midway, Guadalcanal, Bougainville, and Cape Gloucester, it looked more and more like the Allies might prevail. Victory might be a glimmer in 1944, but it would take almost another year and two atomic bombs to achieve absolute victory.

Echo taps concluded the service of remembrance, and the men and women of the Greatest Generation received recognition as they processed in the Walk of Honor cordoned on both sides active duty US military personnel. It was at the end of this walk that I awaited Lou and was able to salute him.

As the day slowly faded into the evening, there was one final ceremony of remembrance. USS Arizona Survivor and the second to the last to traverse the rope thrown by Joe George, Lauren Bruner was re-interred into the USS Arizona by NPS divers and US Army hardhat divers. The ceremony marked the forty-fourth and final time that a USS Arizona Survivor internment would occur. Daniel Martinez, Kelsea Holbrook, and the entire staff of the Pearl Harbor National Monument made sure that everything about this ceremony was perfect. Lou gave a eulogy that fit Lauren perfectly. Second to the Last to Leave, Lauren’s book vividly paints a picture of the horrible things that happened that day, 78 years ago.

Once all the ceremonies for the week were over, the time had come to relax and visit. Lou, always seated on a couch in the lobby of the Hale Koa Hotel, held court with anyone who stopped by for a word, picture, or to thank him for his service. It is amazing to watch this 98-year-old hero interact with old and young alike. He is truly a role model for all Americans, and I am proud that I can call him my friend.

This trip has drawn to a close for all of those who hold Lou and all Pearl Harbor Survivors so dear. We have departed for home with the taste of Hawaii on our lips and joy in our hearts, for we have witnessed greatness first hand. All the Pearl Harbor Survivors who sat upon that stage, December 7, 2019, and all those who served during World War II should be honored not just once a year, but every day. For without their sacrifices, the world could have ended up a much darker place.