PHOENIX — Through the soles of his shoes, Donald Stratton could feel the heat from the platform where he stood on the wounded USS Arizona. The battleship shuddered as another explosion, the most powerful yet, cracked its hull.
Six men huddled on the port side fire control tower, burned badly, trapped as the ship sank in the shallow waters near Honolulu that day, Dec. 7, 1941. Had it been only 14 minutes since Japanese bombers shattered the morning, 14 minutes since an air ambush brought war to Pearl Harbor?
Smoke and flames choked the air, but Stratton saw someone moving on a smaller ship that had been tethered to the Arizona. A sailor on the ship, a supply vessel called the USS Vestal, was about to cut the line when he saw the six men on the tower. Stratton watched as the sailor waved off another man on the deck and struggled with a line.
He heaved it toward the Arizona. Stratton and the others snagged it and secured it to the tower. This was their way out, hand-over-hand across 70 feet of rope above a burning oil slick.
The sailor on the Vestal motioned to the six Arizona crewmen. His eyes met Stratton’s.
“C’mon kid,” he yelled. “You can do it!”
Years later, Stratton and his son, Randy, learned that the sailor, a boatswain’s mate named Joe George, had defied orders to cut the line to the Arizona and had never been recognized for what he did. The Strattons knew they had to right that wrong.
“Without Joe, my dad wouldn’t have been here,” Randy Stratton said Sunday. “He would have died on that platform.”
Instead, he escaped the flames, recovered and went on to reenlist in the Navy, work in the commercial diving business and travel the world.
Donald Stratton died late Saturday at his home in Colorado Springs. His wife, Velma, and his son, Randy, were with him. He was 97.
Stratton will be eulogized at services in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and will be buried in a family plot in his hometown of Red Cloud, Nebraska.
With his death, only two survivors remain from the last crew of the USS Arizona: Lou Conter, 98, of Grass Valley, California, and Ken Potts, 98, of Provo, Utah. The Dec. 7, 1941 attack killed 1,177 sailors and Marines on the mighty battleship, sparing 335.
From the prairie to the sea
Donald Stratton graduated from high school in 1940, a star athlete who needed work during hard times. A lot of young men were joining the military as rumors buzzed about when the United States might be dragged into the war. Stratton figured he could do with the $21 a month, so he joined the Navy.
“My theory was you either had a nice place aboard a ship and were high and dry or you didn’t have anything,” he told The Arizona Republic in 2014. “In the Army, you were crawling around in the mud and everything else, and I didn’t want to do that.”
After boot camp, he was sent to the Navy shipyards in Bremerton, Washington, where he got his first look at the Arizona, in dry dock undergoing maintenance and, most people assumed, being fitted for war.
“It was quite a sight for an old flatlander like me to see a 35,000-ton battleship out of the water,” he said.
By early 1941, the Arizona had steamed down the coast and put in at Pearl Harbor. The crew settled into a routine, in port and on training exercises at sea. The crew learned to work the ship’s guns, the big ones and the smaller ones, firing at floating targets miles away.
“They fired all 12 guns to the port side of the ship one time and moved us sideways in the water 30 or 60 feet or so,” said Stratton, who was a Seaman 1st Class by then. “It was thunderous.”
After the attack, a return to service
Reveille sounded at 5:30 the morning of Dec. 7. Stratton finished breakfast and filled his white hat with oranges on his way to visit a buddy in sick bay. He stopped at his locker, aft of the No. 2 gun turret, and as he walked out, he heard loud voices.
“They were all yelling and pointing toward Ford Island,” he said. “I looked over and seen the water tower go over. One of the planes banked, and I seen the rising sun and said, ‘well, that’s the Japanese, man, they’re bombing us.’”
Stratton headed for his battle station, a steel cube that housed the controls for 25-caliber anti-aircraft guns. Stratton was a sight setter. He cranked a gauge in front of him and yelled the coordinates to the gun crew.
They fired the guns, but the bombers were too high. The Arizona took fire, but could barely return its own. Barely 10 minutes into the attack, a bomb pierced the forward deck and buried itself in the Arizona’s ammunition stores. The explosion lifted the ship out of the water. The bow sagged. A fireball swallowed the control tower where Stratton had climbed minutes before.
Minutes later, the heaving line secured to the tower, the six men climbed down the rope to the Vestal. Stratton was second to go. Second to last was Lauren Bruner, a fire controlman who died in September.
Stratton was burned badly over much of his body. He was taken to a hospital in San Francisco, where he convalesced for the better part of 1942. Finally, he was given a medical discharge and returned to Nebraska.
A year later, he reenlisted. The war still raged in the Pacific. The Navy offered him a job as a chief petty officer running recruits through boot camp in Idaho.
“I said no, I wanted to go to sea,” Stratton said. “Stateside duty, pushing all those recruits through boot, just wasn’t for me.”
He joined the USS Stack, a destroyer headed for the Pacific. Stratton fought in the invasion of the Philippines, in the invasion of Okinawa, on patrol with radar, reporting the advance of suicide bombers.
After the war, he returned home for a while, but felt the call of the sea again and went to work on an oil ship off the coast of California. Bored of the routine, he went into the commercial diving business, traveling the world.
“Once, I made a dive in a two-man submarine, down in over 1,200 feet of water off Santa Barbara coast,” he said. “One of the first people to do that.”
In his dining room in Colorado Springs, he kept a replica of a hard diving helmet, the kind divers on his crew used.
Securing an honor for a hero
In 1966, Stratton returned to Pearl Harbor with his family. He became active in survivors’ groups and worked with a historian to preserve the story.
In time, he tried to let go of his anger toward the Japanese, but he could never forget what happened. Sometimes, Japanese pilots attended memorial ceremonies and some of the other survivors would shake their hands. Stratton could not.
“Listen, all those men down there on that ship, a thousand of them, they wouldn’t do it, and I don’t think they’d want me to do it,” he said. “We can’t forget what happened there that day. We can’t let it happen again.”
He and Velma retired to Yuma, where they lived for about 15 years. They moved back to California briefly and then settled in Colorado Springs. It was there he and Randy started their campaign to recognize Joe George, the sailor who threw the line to the burning Arizona.
Stratton would learn that George, who died in 1996, had defied orders to cut the Vestal’s line, a decision that likely cost him a commendation. The Stratton men called and wrote letters, telling George’s story to anyone who would listen.
In July 2017, Stratton, Bruner and Potts were invited to the White House, where they made their plea to President Donald Trump. On Dec. 7, Stratton, Bruner and Conter watched on board the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor as the Navy awarded George a posthumous Bronze Star for Valor.
‘I’ve told my stories’
Stratton told his own story many times over the years. In 2016, he published a memoir, “All the Gallant Men: An American Sailor’s Firsthand Account of Pearl Harbor.” After that, Randy said, he was done.
“I’ve told my stories,” he told people.
“We should never forget what these guys did for us,” Randy said Sunday from Colorado Springs. “Go read his book, know the sacrifices they made for you. He’s a true American hero.”
He was well known in Colorado Springs, a regular at car shows, where he brought his 1965 Chevrolet pickup. The license plate read USS ARIZ and a mural on a white bed cover depicted the USS Arizona and the memorial that floats above it in Pearl Harbor.
Randy and his mother were with Stratton when he died Saturday. He wanted to be at home, Randy said.
Survivors of the Arizona can choose to have their ashes interred in the sunken battleship in Pearl Harbor, but Stratton decided long ago he did not want that.
After a lifetime at sea, Stratton will return to his home on the prairie.