With death of Lauren Bruner, 98, only three survivors of USS Arizona attack remain
By WYATT OLSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 12, 2019
Lauren Bruner, who survived the cataclysmic attack on the USS Arizona by Japanese planes on Dec. 7, 1941, died Tuesday at the age of 98.
His passing means just three surviving crewmembers who were aboard the Arizona that day remain: Don Stratton, 97, Lou Conter, 98, and Ken Potts, 98.
“Lauren was always quick with a laugh and had a smile that would brighten an entire room,” Stratton wrote on Facebook Wednesday. “We are beyond heartbroken.”
Bruner regularly attended the annual commemorations of the attack held each Dec. 7 at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial.
During a news conference there in 2014, Bruner announced that he had finally decided to have the urn that would hold his cremated remains interred in the sunken hull of the Arizona.
“Well, I studied it for a long time,” Bruner explained with his characteristic humor. “All my family and friends have been buried in various places, cemeteries. But it seems like after a while, nobody pays attention to them anymore after about five years. I hope that a lot of people will still be coming to the Arizona. I would be glad to see them.”
Daniel Martinez, chief historian for the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, which manages the USS Arizona Memorial, said in a tweet that discussions with the family regarding the placement of Bruner’s ashes aboard the ship will be forthcoming.
Bruner chronicled his experience of the attack in “Second to the Last to Leave USS Arizona,” a book he co-authored in 2017.
Bruner was born Nov. 4, 1920, and enlisted in the Navy 1938. The following year, he was assigned to the USS Arizona as a fire controlman in charge of the ship’s .50-caliber guns.
In a 2014 interview with Arizona Public Radio, Bruner recalled that, on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, he raced up from below the ship's deck when the attack began. There, he saw a Japanese plane fly by so closely that he could see the pilot’s face with “a big old grin on his face, mouth wide open.”
“I could see all those teeth,” he said. “You wanted to reach and bust him one.”
Bruner raced for his battle station, but a Japanese Zero fixed its sights on him, fellow survivor Stratton recalled in his memoir, “All the Gallant Men.”
“A blast from its guns, and bullets bit metal,” Stratton wrote. “One of those shots struck flesh, hitting the back of Lauren’s lower leg. He limped onto the sky platform, a trail of blood following him.”
The Arizona was hit with four bombs, one of them crashing through three levels of the ship and into a powder magazine.
“It blew the heck out of everything, just lifted the bow about 30 feet off the water,” Bruner said in the 2014 interview. “It had one hell of a fire.”
Bruner, Stratton and four others were stranded amid the smoke and fire that quickly consumed the Arizona.
The men escaped death by grappling hand-over-hand for 70 feet on a rope to a nearby repair ship, the USS Vestal. Bruner had burns on over 70% of his body.
He was taken to the hospital ship USS Solace and transferred to a mainland hospital after the turn of the year.
After he recovered, Bruner was assigned to the USS Coghlan, participating in eight major engagements in the Aleutian Islands and seven operation in the South Pacific operations.
He retired from the Navy in 1947.
The Dec. 7 attack left Bruner traumatized, and he suffered decades of “nightmares, visions of dead bodies and memories of the stench of burning human flesh,” according to the preface of his book.
He made a last request with its publication: “I do not want to further discuss or answer any questions concerning the actual attack,” Bruner wrote. “As you read these chapters, know they were real and that it was truly Hell on Earth. The horrors of what I witnessed on that morning have kept me from sleep for many years after.
“I chose to face the future and not let my past dictate what might be ahead.”
USS Arizona survivor Lauren Bruner poses with the University of Arizona cheerleaders at Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Ariz., Sept. 17, 2016.
CHRIS DRZAZGOWSKI/U.S. AIR FORCE