Ken Potts is one of five living survivors of the attack on the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on Dec 7, 1941. Though the day is always with him, it doesn’t bother the 97-year-old Provo resident any more.
Potts, of Provo, was raised on a farm near the tiny village of Honeybend, Illinois. His home didn’t have electricity, running water or indoor plumbing until he was 12 years old when they moved into town. He joined the Navy in 1938 because work was so scarce in the midst of the Great Depression. He sailed from San Pedro, California, on board the Arizona in December 1939.
By Dec. 7, 1941, the USS Arizona had returned to battleship row in Pearl Harbor just two days before. Potts had spent the night in nearby Honolulu. He didn’t think much when he heard the noise from the harbor, until the news of the attack came over the radio. Hundreds of service men crammed into taxis to get back to their ships.
By the time Potts arrived at the harbor, the USS Oklahoma was already listing sideways as it rested on the ocean floor. The torpedoing had given way to strafing planes. Parts of the USS Arizona were already on fire. Potts said flames leapt up from the surface of the water as oil roiled up from damaged ship engines.
The shuttle boat picked them up at a food loading dock, because it was farther from the battle than the usual shuttle dock. When Potts and his shipmates got to the USS Arizona, the officer on deck directed them to the afterdeck with no more instruction than to try to keep alive.
“People were running every direction like a swarm of ants,” Potts said.
Most of the crew was below decks, probably still unaware of what was going on.
Before long, the strafing planes gave way to the heavy bombers. The officer on deck ordered the men to abandon ship. Some traveled hand over hand on the cables that tethered the ship to the shore. Others already caught in the flames on the upper part of the ship who were badly burned travelled hand over hand on ropes to the repair ship, Vestal, that was tethered alongside.
The water between the ships and Ford Island was not on fire yet, so others jumped into the water and swam. Potts got aboard a transport boat that circled around the stern of the ship and dropped them onto Ford Island, just a moment before the bone-rattling detonation of a bomb blew up the forward magazine on board the Arizona.
Potts isn’t sure he believes it was a bomb down the smoke stack of the ship as is commonly believed because of how low the planes were flying. He doesn’t think the bomb could have turned 90 degrees to go straight down the narrow smoke stack so quickly.
“Some people say the Arizona lifted out of the water when it exploded. I saw it explode. It was cut nearly in two,” he said. “I think that the concussion pushed the water away from it and made it look like it was higher in the water.”
The Arizona sank immediately, but the superstructure was still above water.
“I don’t remember ever being afraid. I don’t think I had time to think about being afraid,” Potts said.
But he also explained that after the war, when a fire engine would go by with its siren blaring, he would start shaking.
Potts recalls finding a Colt 45 pistol lying near the water on Ford Island. He picked it up and carried it with him throughout the war. He never knew who it belonged to or where it came from.
Later on the night of Dec. 7, 1941, he and five other men were sent back to the Arizona with orders to kill anything that moved. The Navy was concerned about saboteurs and they hoped to rescue some men caught inside the ship.
Rescue efforts started the next day, but were impossible.
“Most of my unit were dead,” he said. “The forward half of the ship was just a twisted mass of metal.” The worst duty, he said, was removing the bodies from the back of the ship. Most in that part had drowned or suffocated. One thousand one hundred and seventy-seven men died on the USS Arizona that day.
“I’m not a hero. I know men that were. I don’t think participating in a war makes a person a hero. Please don’t call me that,” he said.
Potts spent the rest of the war working in Aloha tower preparing orders for Navy captains and other such office work, just a few hundred yards away from his sunken ship. After the war, he went home, married his wife Doris in Provo, and made a living building houses and selling used cars.
Potts may not be a hero by his definition, but he is a treasure trove of eyewitness memories of some of the most pivotal events in history.