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Pearl Harbor

An Arizona survivor remembers

Created date

July 27th, 2017
Donald Stratton drops a flower in remembrance from aboard a ship

Donald Stratton recounts the incredible story of his World War II service in All the Gallant Men (William Morrow, 2016), which is the first memoir written by a survivor from the USS Arizona.

After three quarters of a century, Donald Stratton remembers December 7, 1941, like it was yesterday. Sitting in his Colorado Springs home, the 95-year-old Navy veteran even recalls what time he had gotten up that morning aboard the USS Arizona.

Stratton awoke earlier than the customary 5:30 reveille. As hundreds of sailors rolled out of their hammocks, he showered and readied himself for a leisurely chow call: pancakes, fried Spam, powdered eggs, fruit, and lots of coffee.

Dressed in the Navy’s typical Sunday uniform—a white T-shirt, pressed shorts, and a sailor’s hat—Stratton joined the rest of the men in his group for breakfast around 6:30. Meanwhile, the first wave of Japanese bombers and fighter planes, 181 strong, had taken off from their carriers 220 miles north of Oahu, Hawaii. 

Their target was the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor.

On the Arizona, Stratton had finished his breakfast and, grabbing a hatful of oranges for a friend laid up in sickbay, headed for the ship’s forecastle deck. As he stepped outside, he heard the roar of aircraft engines.  

Along one side of the Arizona was the repair ship Vestal; on the other, the southeastern shore of Ford Island, which held a landing strip, hangars, and support facilities for Navy aircraft. 

Here—at a little bit past 7 a.m.—the explosions started.

Under attack

Stratton ran to the bow and saw Japanese Zeros strafing the parked Navy planes, with balls of fire erupting skyward. Next, the fighters turned their weapons on the Ford Island water tower, sending it toppling to the ground. 

“I remember looking up at the planes overhead,” he recalls. “I recognized those big red ‘meatballs’ on the wings....They had torpedo planes, fighter planes, and dive bombers.”

For many, the initial reaction may have been to take cover or abandon ship. Stratton and his fellow sailors went straight for their battle stations.

As he raced up the ladders leading to his post high up in the port-side antiaircraft director, he felt the Arizona shudder with a dull thud. A Japanese torpedo plane had scored a hit on the ship’s hull.

Stratton soon had ascended a series of ladders to the radio shack, then the signal bridge, next the bridge, and on to the sky control platform, where he went to work setting the ship’s antiaircraft guns inside an enclosure that was the port director. 

“We had a sweeping view of the harbor from where we were,” he says. “And it was a hell of a sight—Zeros were swooping in and strafing the Arizona, mowing down sailors and splintering the deck.”

Once they had the antiaircraft guns loaded, Stratton began firing at the Japanese bombers, but the shells exploded short of their targets.

“Our guns couldn’t reach the bombers, which were just too high,” he laments. “It was damned frustrating—we felt helpless, but we fought on anyway.”

During this time, the Arizona took at least two more potentially devastating hits on the No. 3 turret and through the aft deck, neither of which detonated. A third bomb hit the adjacent repair ship Vestal, its crew frantically struggling to put out the flames.

The Arizona received two additional hits. One exploded below decks in a meat locker. 

Gradually the ship’s on-deck ammo supplies ran dry. Steadily, its guns fell silent. 

“I could see the faces of the Japanese pilots as they flew past,” says Stratton. “They were waving and smiling…mocking us.”

At 8:06 a.m., a Japanese bomber dealt the Arizona its death blow from 10,000 feet.

“Right before the explosion, we felt the impact,” Stratton recalls.

A 1,760-lb., armor-piercing bomb went through four decks, landing in the ship’s full ammunition magazine. When it went off, the force sent the Arizona’s No. 1 turret (over 100 tons of steel) spinning into the air like a bottle cap. 

On Ford Island, the blast knocked bystanders off their feet and hurled a jet of flames through the port director, severely burning everyone inside, including Stratton.

“The fire had burned my back, my arms, my legs from my thighs down to my ankles; 65% of my body,” he says. “My hair was singed off. To this day, I don’t have fingerprints.”

Miraculously, the massive shockwave from the direct hit on the Arizona had blown out the fires aboard the adjacent Vestal. And a member of her crew, who should have been in the brig, saw Stratton and his comrades stranded in the port director.

His name was Joe George.

“George was an ornery fellow, known for disobeying orders,” says Stratton. “And thank God for that.”

The rescue

Stratton made his way out onto the searing hot platform surrounding the port director and called to George to throw them a line. It was their only hope of escaping the flames that consumed the dying Arizona. 

As George picked up the line, the Vestal’s captain threatened to court-martial him if he threw it to the stranded sailors. With Japanese planes swarming about the harbor, he wanted to get his ship into the safety of open waters. 

“Joe looked at his captain and said, ‘Go ahead and court martial me,’” says Stratton. “‘I’m not gonna let these men die.’”

The captain relented and, after several attempts, George successfully tossed the rope across to Stratton. Despite grave burns to his hands, he managed to cross the 80-foot lifeline that led to the Vestal.

A staggering 1,177 souls were lost aboard the Arizona during the Japanese assault. Only 334 escaped—5 of them are still with us.

Stratton, in his 95th year, is helping to lead an effort to posthumously decorate Joe George, an unsung hero of the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

“It’s my last wish to see that Joe gets the recognition he deserves,” he says. “I’m alive because of him. He saved six men that day and got nothing for it.”

This year, Stratton and fellow Arizona survivor Lauren Bruner will visit Washington, D.C., in hopes of making this final wish come true.

British statesman Benjamin Disraeli once said that “the legacy of heroes is the memory of a great name and the inheritance of a great example.”

Donald Stratton knows this better than anyone.

For more information on making Mr. Stratton’s trip to Washington possible, please visit arizonafinalsalute.com.

 

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