Ken Potts is now one of just two survivors left from the USS Arizona
By PHIL LUCIANO | Journal Star, Peoria, Ill. | Published: February 18, 2020
PEORIA, Ill. (Tribune News Service) — Navy veteran Ken Potts long has enjoyed gathering and chatting with fellow survivors of the USS Arizona.
Sunday, he and shipmate Lou Conter somberly talked by phone about the latest Arizona crewman to pass away. Neither Potts nor Conter will ever have a phone conversation like that again.
Saturday, the 98-year-olds became the only two remaining Arizona survivors. When the number drops to one, there will be no shipmate left to call the other to offer consolation.
That fact isn't lost on Potts, a native of central Illinois. Though usually a matter-of-fact fellow, he got choked up as we talked by phone Monday about Don Stratton, an Arizona sailor who died Sunday. Potts paused with emotional as he described their small brotherhood's special bond.
"It's important when you get old, like we are," he said from his Utah home. "It's especially important when you lose one."
Potts was born and raised in the burg of Honey Bend, near Litchfield. At age 18, with job scarce nationwide, he did the same thing as other young me across the country: he enlisted in the service. He joined the Navy, just like Stratton in his own tiny hometown: Red Cloud, Neb. Though Potts and Stratton didn't meet until long after the war, they became fast friends after learning they shared common backgrounds.
"He and were both raised on farms, in small towns," Potts said with a chuckle. "We lived a similar life."
Two years into his Navy service, Potts was working as a crane operator aboard the USS Arizona. Just before 8 a.m. Dec. 7, 1941, as he returned to the ship with a load of fruit, a low whine filled the air.
The first of a swarm of Japanese warplanes had descended on Pearl Harbor. Explosions roared as bombs dropped from the sky, with three striking and stunning the Arizona. As the crew struggled to return fire, a fourth bomb hit the Arizona, with devastating finality. The armor-piercing bomb blasted through the forward deck, igniting a million pounds of gunpowder and sparking a massive fireball shooting flames 500 feet high.
Minutes later and mortally wounded, the Arizona began to sink. Below deck, multitudes of sailors and Marines were trapped, accounting for most of the ship's 1,177 fatalities.
Up top, Potts and others abandoned ship in transport craft. Sliding through the flaming harbor, Potts and other crewmen pulled men from the water and headed to Ford Island. There, they regrouped as the attack raged 90 hellish minutes.
Meantime, Stratton made a painful and dramatic escape from the ship. With burns over 70 percent of his body, he and five others fled the ship by moving hand-over-hand along a rope tossed by a sailor from nearby vessel. As fuel burned in the water below, they barely reached safety.
After recovering stateside, he got a medical discharge and returned to Nebraska in 1942, according to the Arizona Republic. But a year later, he reenlisted, serving on a destroyer and fighting in invasion of the Philippines.
Following the war, Stratton went into the commercial diving business and eventually settled in Colorado with wife Velma, whom he married nearly 70 years ago. Potts, who served at Pearl Harbor through the end of the war, returned home but traveled west, landing in Utah and selling cars. In Provo, he and wife Doris have lived in the same house for 54 years.
In reunions during recent years, Potts and Stratton became pals, along with fellow Arizona sailor Lou Conter of Grass Valley, Calif. In 2017, Stratton and Potts were part of a team that met with brass at the Pentagon to posthumously honor Joe George, the sailor who had thrown the rope that saved Stratton and the others at Pearl Harbor. Later that year, at the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii on Dec. 7, Stratton and Conter joined a ceremonial throng as George (who died in 1996) was awarded a Bronze Star.
Also at those two events was Lauren Bruner, a sailor who fled the Arizona along the same rope as Stratton, according to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Bruner died at age 98 in September, leaving just three survivors. He was interred with other crew members in the USS Arizona Memorial.
Stratton, who died at age 97 at home Sunday surrounded by his wife and family, is to be laid to rest in his native Red Cloud. Sunday, one of his sons called Potts with the news of the death.
Shortly thereafter, Conter phoned Potts to talk about the passing of their shipmate. The two didn't talk long, as there wasn't much to say.
"There's just two of us now," Potts said.
©2020 the Journal Star (Peoria, Ill.)
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Survivors from the USS Arizona meet with military leaders at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., July 21, 2017. From left to right are U.S. Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; U.S. Navy Adm. John Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations; Lauren Bruner, who served as a fire controlman third class; Ken Potts, who served as a coxswain; Donald Stratton, who served as a seaman first class; and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.
BRIGITTE N. BRANTLEY/U.S. AIR FORCE