Eighty years later, Ken Potts can still hear the sirens wailing from Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor. The sounds are what he remembers most from that day.
The U.S.S. Arizona survivor doesn’t like to look back. His memories are clouded by the chaos and trauma of that day. The 100-year-old still tears up when he talks about the friend he lost and how he survived when 1,177 other sailors did not.
“All you could see was fire,” he said. “It looked like the whole world was on fire.”
Potts, who served as a crane operator aboard the battleship, was on liberty in Honolulu Dec. 6, 1941. That’s when he awoke, hearing loudspeakers blaring “All Navy personnel get back to their ships.” He hailed a cab and got as close as he could before a small boat took him the rest of the way.
When Potts arrived, the Arizona had been strafed but was still intact. His memory fails from here as he recalls the carnage, the turmoil, and each man doing what he had to do to stay alive and save others.Potts’ mother had been told he was MIA or dead.
“The noise, you can’t imagine the noise.”
Bombs would eventually detonate the ammunition in the ship, causing explosion. Potts was on the stern when it happened, about as far away from the impact as he could be.
“Abandon Ship!” he remembers hearing. “Some jumped in the water and swam, others got off however they could. I jumped in the same boat that brought me out there. It was a mess.”
That boat headed for Ford Island just a few hundred yards away. They picked up as many sailors in the water as they could along the way. Some were badly hurt and many were covered in oil. Others were fine, physically.
On the island, Potts and other sailors checked in at the receiving station. News had traveled fast to the mainland and Potts’s mother had already been told he was MIA and presumed dead.
The next 24 hours were a blur, but he remembers returning to the Arizona that same day to help search for survivors. He spent the night on what was left of the doomed ship.
“We were looking for guns and ammo. No one slept that night.”
Today, Potts leads a quiet life – just the way he like it. His garage has been transformed into a memorial of that fateful day. And while he doesn’t like to talk about it much, he says the more than 900 men entombed in the sunken battleship were like family.
The Arizona’s death toll was nearly half of all Americans killed that day.
Potts is one of only two living survivors of the U.S.S. Arizona. He lives in Provo, Utah, with his wife Doris. He still receives fan mail and special invitations from all over the country. In 2016, he attended the 75th anniversary commemoration at the Pearl Harbor Memorial.
Potts will be 101 on April 15.