Interviewed by Alex Kershaw for the AARP Bulletin.
Ken Potts was in Honolulu when he heard people shouting. Then he heard a loudspeaker blaring for “all Navy personnel to get back to their ships.” The 20-year-old found a taxicab that sped him to his battleship, the USS Arizona, and he quickly got to his station as a crane operator. It was early morning, Dec. 7, 1941.
“I don’t know what hell is like,” remembers Potts, now 100, “but I guess that morning would be as close as you can get.” As the attack progressed, “the whole harbor was afire. Oil was leaking from the ships that were hit by torpedoes.”
Some 15 minutes into the attack, a Japanese plane dropped a large bomb on the Arizona. Fuel stores and ammunition magazines exploded, and the massive battleship erupted in flames. “I was on the stern of the ship. Everything was in turmoil after that. It was like the whole country was burning. The word was passed to abandon ship, and those who could get off jumped into the water. It was a mess.”
Potts survived by leaping into the churning harbor. He was one of just 334 from the 1,511-man crew who got off alive. Among the dead were Potts’ best friend, a Minnesotan named Merritt Cameron Helm. The Arizona’s death toll was nearly half of all Americans killed that day. Potts was able to reach a launch headed toward nearby Ford Island. He and other survivors “pulled a lot of people out of the water. Everybody was doing anything they could do to help.” After the attack, Potts drew the grim task of retrieving bodies of his Arizona crewmates.
In 2006, he returned to Pearl Harbor and visited the Arizona Memorial, which is above the sunken battleship. It honors the 2,390 civilians and service members killed in the attack.
“When you get out on it,” he says, “you just get a feeling that I can’t explain.”
More than 900 of Potts’ crewmates are entombed in the sunken battleship. There is just one other living survivor from the Arizona, retired Lt. Cmdr. Louis “Lou” Conter, also 100.
As for Potts, he still considers the hundreds of his comrades who died that terrible December day to be “one big family.”
Alex Kershaw is a best-selling author of several books about World War II, including The Liberator, which became a Netflix miniseries in 2020.