Ken Potts, Oldest Survivor of U.S.S. Arizona Sinking, Dies at 102

Ken Potts, the oldest known survivor of the Japanese sneak attack that sunk the battleship Arizona at Pearl Harbor in 1941, taking the most lives ever lost on an American warship, died on Friday at his home in Provo, Utah, less than a week after celebrating his 102 birthday.

His death was announced by the National Park Service, which administers the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, above the sunken hull where the remains of more than 900 of the 1,177 sailors and Marines who were killed in the attack are still entombed.

The Arizona’s death toll accounted for nearly half the military personnel killed at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared “a date that shall live in infamy” and which prompted the United States to declare war on Japan.

Lou Conter, a 101-year-old Californian, is now believed to be the only living survivor among the Arizona crewmen who escaped the inferno that Sunday morning. Only 93 of those who were aboard the ship at the time lived; 242 other crew members were ashore.

Mr. Potts, a 20-year-old crane operator with the rank of boatswain’s mate, had been on leave in Honolulu for two days. He was on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor when sirens blared and loudspeakers ordered Navy personnel back to their ships.

“This is not a drill, this is the real thing,” he remembered thinking. By then the sailors could already hear, see and smell that the warning was authentic.

“When I got back to Pearl Harbor, the whole harbor was afire,” Mr. Potts said in an interview with the American Veterans Center in 2020. “The oil had leaked out and caught on fire and was burning.”

“Going back to the ship, we had to drag sailors out of the oily water,” he told the photographer D. Clarke Evans in 2014. “We couldn’t think much about it. You don’t think much of anything, I guess. You’re in shock. All you worried about was staying alive.”

After the order to abandon ship was sounded, he told the veterans center, “We pulled a lot of them out of there, trying to keep their heads above the oil. Some of them swam to shore, some of them were picked up. Some of them didn’t make it.”

In announcing Mr. Potts’s death, the Park Service said: “Attempting to navigate through the flaming harbor, Potts and other crewmen pulled men from the water and took them to shore on Ford Island.”

Struck by Japanese bombers, the Arizona toppled over in nine minutes and burned for two days before sinking. After fishing dozens of survivors from the harbor, Mr. Potts later dived into the ship to search for more, but found only bodies.

“My best day in the Navy is when I survived Dec. 7, 1941,” he told Mr. Evans. “It was also my worst day.”

Howard Kenton Potts was born on April 15, 1921, in a farmhouse without running water or electricity in Honey Bend, Ill., about 40 miles south of Springfield. His father, Joseph, worked in a radiator factory. His mother was Clara (Baker) Potts.

He attended a one-room schoolhouse through the eighth grade. Instead of enrolling in high school, which would have entailed walking 14 miles round-trip every day, he briefly joined a Civilian Conservation Corps project during the Depression, until he realized that the most reliable place for steady employment was the military.

The Coast Guard wasn’t taking recruits, and so on Oct. 4, 1939 — barely a month after Nazi Germany invaded Poland — he enlisted in the Navy. That December, he sailed from San Pedro, Calif., on the Arizona, the only ship on which he would serve.

After the Japanese attack, he was assigned to the Pearl Harbor port director’s office for the duration of the war. One of his duties was delivering confidential orders to arriving ship commanders informing them of their destinations in the Pacific

He was discharged in 1945 as a boatswain’s mate first class. Returning to Illinois, he briefly worked as a carpenter. He moved to Colorado, where he helped build homes, and moved again, in 1946, to Utah, where he owned and managed a used car lot for the next 30 years.

Among his survivors are his wife, Doris, whom he married in 1957, as well as his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Mr. Potts returned to Pearl Harbor on several occasions, the first time in 1986 for a commemoration. He returned in 2011 as a guest of the Timpview High School marching band of Provo, which performed at a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the attack.

The U.S.S. Arizona Memorial draws some 1.7 million visitors a year. For decades the submerged battleship continued to shed black tears in the form of about a quart of oil leaking from somewhere inside hull every day. Mr. Potts, too, retained a legacy of that Sunday morning in 1941.

“For a long time,” he said, “even after I got out of the Navy, when I was out in the open and hear a siren, I’d shake.”

After their deaths, several dozen veterans of the Arizona rejoined their shipmates by having their ashes interred in the sunken vessel, one as recently as 2021. Mr. Potts preferred a more traditional funeral, according to Randy Stratton, the son of a former shipmate and friend, Donald Stratton, who died in 2020 at 97.

“He said he got off once,” Mr. Stratton said of Mr. Potts, referring to the Arizona. “He’s not going to go back on board again.”

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