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Provo resident and survivor of the USS Arizona celebrates 100 years

By Genelle Pugmire special To The Standard-Examiner - | Apr 14, 2021
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Ken Potts looks at memorabilia in the "man cave" at his home on Wednesday, April 14, 2021, prior to his big 100th birthday celebration. 

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Ken Potts' enlistment photo.

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USS Arizona survivors at the 75th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor at Arlington Cemetery. From left: Lauren Bruner, sitting, Ken Potts and Donald Stratton.

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A piece of the USS Arizona given to Ken Potts at the 75th anniversary ceremony in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

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USS Arizona survivor Ken Potts shows off his "man cave" of memorabilia.

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Ken Potts, 97, at his home in Provo.

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USS Arizona shipmates Donald Stratton and Ken Potts in Honolulu, Hawaii, for the 75th Anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Stratton died in 2020.

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Shipmates Lauren Bruner, Donald Stratton and Ken Potts with wives, Doris Potts and Velma Stratton, at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery.

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Ken Potts shows some of his memorabilia of the USS Arizona to Becky Ramirez and a college film crew.

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Ken Potts is interviewed for the senior capstone film "The War Within." His wife, Doris Potts, sits next to him.

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Ken Potts poses with his collections, much of which is from his Pearl Harbor days, at his home on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. 

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Ken Potts rests at his Provo home on Thursday, April 14, 2021, prior to his 100th birthday celebration.

Thursday is Provo resident Ken Potts’ 100th birthday. Being 100 is quite a milestone for anyone, but for Potts it’s a miracle.

Potts was born April 15, 1921, in Honey Bend, Illinois, a small settlement near Litchfield. He was a Midwest agricultural kid who lived through the Great Depression and never graduated from high school but was there to answer the call to serve his country. In 1939, at age 18, he joined the Navy.

By the time Potts was 20 years old, he was serving in the South Pacific on the USS Arizona, one of two Pennsylvania-class battleships at the time. It was commissioned on Oct. 17, 1916, making it the largest ship in the Navy’s fleet.

Potts was on the Arizona on Dec. 7, 1941, the day that will live in infamy. As of 2021, Potts is one of two remaining survivors of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the sinking of the USS Arizona.

In an article written in the Stars and Stripes magazine in 2020, Potts lamented about losing his shipmate Donald Stratton, the third to last remaining sailor from the USS Arizona. He choked up as he spoke about him to the magazine.

“It’s important when you get old, like we are,” he said from his Utah home. “It’s especially important when you lose one,” Stars and Stripes reported Potts saying.

So, Potts’ birthday Thursday isn’t just any old cake and ice cream affair. It is history; and while that history is fading, it should be celebrated, at least according to the Navy, the governor, the mayor, his friends, family and a bunch of neighbors.

“In celebration of his 100th birthday on April 15, 2021, Mr. Ken Potts, one of only two living survivors that were aboard the battleship USS Arizona (BB39) during the attack on Pearl Harbor, will be taken on a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter flight by the Utah National Guard’s 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion,” a military press release late Wednesday announced.

“It is an honor for the Utah National Guard to celebrate this incredible birthday milestone with Mr. Potts,” said Maj. Gen. Michael Turley, adjutant general of the Utah National Guard. “On behalf of the Utah National Guard, we want to express our gratitude to Mr. Potts for his exemplary service to this nation.”

Potts is humble, not flamboyant, nor does he seek notoriety. He says he is confused by all the birthday fuss.

“I have people coming from all over the country,” Potts said. “I think it’s getting out of hand.”

Nikki Stratton, Donald Stratton’s granddaughter, knows Potts well.

“He is one of my favorite people,” she said. She traveled with Potts and her grandfather to Washington, D.C., for the 75th anniversary of the bombing, where the two men were honored by then-President Donald Trump.

Potts is going to have a busy birthday. In the morning, there will be a private celebration with members of the Navy, including a special flyover just for him.

According to friend Betsy Ramirez, Potts wanted to skydive for his 100th birthday, but COVID-19 and Potts’ health will not allow that.

Representatives from the Navy in the area will be presenting Potts with memorabilia gifts and other surprises. Several military personnel will be on hand.

Throughout the day, Potts will be visited and interviewed by press and national media.

The governor’s office also has something special planned for the day.

At 6 p.m. Thursday, a grand drive-by parade will be held in his honor. Those who would like to participate can stage at 5:30 p.m. at the LDS Church parking lot at 131 S. 1600 West in Provo. The parade route will be lined with American flags. 

Organizers encourage participants to fly and wave American flags and, if possible, the Navy flag, and make happy 100th birthday posters.

“We are blessed to have a true hero in Provo,” said Mayor Michelle Kaufusi. “It is so heartwarming to see an appreciative community ready and willing to celebrate the ‘century mark’ with a man who is so deserving.”

As one of only two survivors left from the USS Arizona, Potts becomes one of the few voices left with an eyewitness viewpoint of this infamous moment in America’s history, Kaufusi noted.

“With each honk, wave and expression of gratitude, I hope he feels our gratitude for his admirable and selfless service.”

Kaufusi will join with the Provo Municipal Council to award Potts with the Mayor’s Award of Honor in recognition of his service at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Ramirez was a band student at Timpview High School 10 years ago when they invited Potts to be their guest as they performed for the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor at the USS Arizona memorial in Hawaii.

“He respects his privacy but is very nice and has a good sense of humor,” Ramirez said. “He told me during the Great Depression he would hunt squirrels and rabbits with his slingshot. They would eat squirrel and rabbit stew because he was that good with a slingshot.”

Ramirez said Potts turned one of his rooms in his house into his “man cave” and has lots of memorabilia from Pearl Harbor in it. He also collects hats and menus from diners and cafes he has visited.

In all of his travels and through his life, his wife, Doris, has been there, Ramirez said.

“Doris is an incredible support. She’s his rock,” Ramirez added.

David Fullmer was director of the Timpview Band at the time of the Pearl Harbor trip.

“Ken has been a dear friend,” Fullmer said. “This was our window of opportunity to sit at his feet before he (and others) are gone.

“I’m grateful that the opportunity (his birthday) didn’t go by without making a big deal about it,” Fullmer added.

In describing the scene at Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Stars and Stripes magazine noted that Potts was a crane operator on the ship.

“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 magazine reports. The first of a swarm of Japanese warplanes had descended on Pearl Harbor.”

Potts was above deck and with others abandoned ship to a transport craft that took them through a harbor in flames, the magazine reported.

“I am one of two people left alive from Pearl Harbor (USS Arizona),” Potts said Wednesday. “I’m physically fit, but my legs don’t work so well.”

Potts stayed at Pearl Harbor through the war, and when it was over he returned home and then came to Utah where he sold cars.

Potts and his wife have lived in Provo for 54 years.

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