Howard Kenton Potts died Friday at the home in Provo, Utah, that he shared with his wife of 66 years, according to Randy Stratton, whose late father, Donald Stratton, was Potts’ Arizona shipmate and close friend.
Stratton said Potts “had all his marbles” but lately was having a hard time getting out of bed. When Stratton spoke to Potts on his birthday, April 15, he was happy to have made it to 102.
“But he knew that his body was kind of shutting down on him, and he was just hoping that he could get better but (it) turned out not,” Stratton said.
Potts was born and raised in Honey Bend, Illinois, and enlisted in the Navy in 1939.
He was working as a crane operator shuttling supplies to the Arizona the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when the Pearl Harbor attack happened, according to a 2021 article by the Utah National Guard.
In a 2020 oral history interview with the American Veterans Center, Potts said a loudspeaker ordered sailors back to their ships so he got on a boat.
“When I got back to Pearl Harbor, the whole harbor was afire,” He said in the interview. “The oil had leaked out and caught on fire and was burning.”
Dozens of ships either sank, capsized or were damaged in the bombing of the Hawaii naval base, which catapulted the U.S. into World War II.
Sailors were tossed or forced to jump into the oily muck below, and Potts and his fellow sailors pulled some to safety in their boat.
The Arizona sank just nine minutes after being bombed, and its 1,177 dead account for nearly half the servicemen killed in the attack. Today the battleship still sits where it sank eight decades ago, with more than 900 dead entombed inside.
Potts recalled decades later that some people were still giving orders in the midst of the attack but there was also a lot of chaos. He carried his memories of the attack over the course of his long life.
“Even after I got out of the Navy, out in the open, and heard a siren, I’d shake,” he said.
Stratton noted that the only remaining survivor from the Arizona is now Lou Conter, who is 101 and living in California.
“This is history. It’s going away,” Stratton said, adding: “And once (Conter is) gone, who tells all their stories?”
Several dozen Arizona survivors have had their ashes interred on the sunken battleship so they could join their shipmates, but Potts didn’t want that, according to Stratton.
“He said he got off once, he’s not going to go back on board again,” he said.
Stratton said many Arizona survivors shared a similar dry sense of humor. That included his own father, who was severely burned in the attack and also did not want to return to the ship as ashes in an urn.
“‘I’ve been cremated once. I’m not going to be cremated twice,’” Donald Stratton joked, according to the younger Stratton, before his death in 2020 at age 97.
“They had that all throughout their lives. They had the sense of humor, and they knew sooner or later they would pass,” Randy Stratton said. “Our job now is to keep their memories alive.”
Potts is survived by his wife, Doris. Information on other survivors was not immediately available.