The water appeared to be on fire, and the scent of burning oil filled the air.
Donald Stratton stood on the deck of the USS Arizona as a Japanese bomb devastated part of the battleship, stationed in Pearl Harbor off the coast of Honolulu. The ground trembled beneath his feet as explosions rang out and a fireball ripped through him, setting his T-shirt ablaze and destroying part of his ear.
On the ship’s lower deck, other U.S. Navy sailors were engulfed in flames. Stratton took up his station on a covered perch on the main mast and helped try to shoot down the Japanese planes, but their shells couldn’t reach the aircraft. Meanwhile, ships all around the Arizona were exploding.
Joe George, a boatswain’s mate on a repair ship about 70 feet away, was cutting the lines that tethered the vessel to the Arizona when he saw Stratton and five other men stranded on the battleship. In direct defiance of orders from his superior, George shoved a lead-weighted rope to the Arizona’s sailors, who grabbed hold.
“The six of us went hand over hand across the line and above the inflamed water,” Stratton wrote in his memoir, “All the Gallant Men.” “My body was burned, my hands were raw, and I was focused on survival. I never thought about not making it.”
After the attack, the Arizona burned for two more days.
In the memoir, Stratton said George’s daring choice was possibly the only reason that Stratton, then 19, lived through the 1941 attack and eventually became one of the Arizona’s last three survivors. After nearly eight decades of recounting his story and joining other survivors at annual anniversary ceremonies, Stratton died in his sleep late Saturday at his Colorado Springs, Colorado, home at the age of 97, according to his family.
Although survivors from the Arizona can choose to join more than 900 other crew members who are entombed in the wreckage, Stratton has said he wants to be buried with his family in Nebraska.
Lou Conter and Ken Potts, both 98, are now the only living survivors of the Arizona, where 1,177 sailors and Marines were killed — roughly half of the total death toll — and 335 escaped in the attack on Pearl Harbor. The loss of one of the few remaining people with memories of what happened on that ship heralds the time when a monumental part of the infamous attack will be lost to history.
Stratton talked about that traumatic day many times over the years, his son Randy Stratton said Monday in an interview. The 25th anniversary of the attack was the first time he saw his father cry. Loud noises spooked Stratton for years after he joined the Navy for “20 bucks a month and to see the world,” Randy Stratton said.
In 2016, Stratton told the Daily Express that the searing images of his fellow sailors’ deaths were never far from his mind.
“I think about it every day,” he told the newspaper. “I have no animosity against the Japanese people, but I can’t forget what happened.”
Once Stratton and the others made it into the supply vessel during the attack, they climbed onto the dock and into a truck for a ride to a nearby Navy hospital, Stratton told the Arizona Republic in 2014. A worker soon asked for volunteers to be transferred to a hospital in California, and Stratton volunteered.
“If you can stand up and stay up while we change the linen on this bed, we’ll see about it,” the worker told him, according to Stratton’s recounting of the story to the Republic.
Stratton stood and suffered through the pain until his bed was remade. He was at a hospital near San Francisco by Christmas, the Republic reported.
While in the hospital, Stratton’s weight plummeted to 92 pounds. His feet refused to react when he tried to stand. He declined a visit from his mother because he couldn’t stand the thought of her seeing him in such disarray.
Doctors sought to amputate Stratton’s left arm, which they worried would never heal. Stratton said he rejected their suggestion and set out to regain his strength: learning to walk again, swimming in the hospital’s pool and standing in the hot tub.
Although he was deemed unfit for combat when he was released from the hospital in September 1942, Stratton quickly decided that he wanted to reenlist. Most of the other young men in his hometown of Red Cloud, Nebraska, had joined the military. Besides, Stratton admitted in his memoir, he wanted to get revenge.
Stratton convinced the draft board to let him back into the Navy, and he went through a second round of boot camp. In 1945, he fought in the Battle of Okinawa, which he described in his memoir as “82 days of hell.” Stratton started electric-hydraulics school in San Diego a few weeks before the United States bombed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
He had seen the beginning of World War II and the very end.
Throughout his life, Stratton refused to shake the hands of Japanese pilots who attended the Pearl Harbor memorial ceremonies.
“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,” Stratton told the Arizona Republic. “We can’t forget what happened there that day. We can’t let it happen again.”
Stratton and other Arizona survivors long petitioned for the Navy to award a medal to George, the boatswain’s mate who threw the lead rope that saved their lives. Stratton and fellow sailor Lauren Bruner spoke about George to reporters while visiting the White House in July 2017.
The Navy dismissed requests to issue a medal to George while he was alive because he had defied his superior’s orders to leave the area during the attack, according to Stratton’s memoir. But in December 2017, the Navy posthumously awarded him a Bronze Star.
In addition to George, Stratton often credited “the good Lord” with helping him to survive. His son said Stratton’s Christian faith was an important part of his life.
“I don’t know how I made it,” Stratton said in 2016. “But I’m here.”