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Donald Stratton was stationed on the USS Arizona when a million pounds of explosives detonated beneath his battle station fifteen minutes into the attack on Pearl Harbour.

Donald Stratton was stationed on the USS Arizona when a million pounds of explosives detonated beneath his battle station fifteen minutes into the attack on Pearl Harbour.

“Remember Pearl Harbour”

“Arizona, I remember you”

Donald Stratton could never shake the memory of it all – the deafening explosions, searing heat, machine gun blasts and heart-wrenching screams of his friends – from his head.

“Never a day goes by for all these many years when I haven’t thought about it,” Stratton said. “I don’t talk about it too much, but when December rolls around I do. It’s important the American people don’t forget.”

Donald Stratton, 93, served four years in the United States Navy and was on board the USS Arizona December 7, 1941, the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. The adventure of being at sea had been a lifelong dream for Stratton, so when he turned 18, he enlisted in the Navy. One year later he was assigned for duty on the USS Arizona. The hulk of the ship still rests in Pearl Harbor as a memorial to the nearly 2,500 Americans killed that day.

That any sailors survived the attack on the Arizona is a miracle, Stratton says.

“A million pounds of ammunition exploded,” he said. “The fireball went 600 or 800 feet in the air and just engulfed us.”

The Pearl Harbour attack, (December 7, 1941), surprise aerial attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbour on Oahu Island, Hawaii, by the Japanese that precipitated the entry of the United States into World War II. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the attack. The strike climaxed a decade of worsening relations between the United States and Japan. Japan’s invasion of China in 1937, its subsequent alliance with the Axis powers (Germany and Italy) in 1940, and its occupation of French Indochina in July 1941 prompted the United States to respond that same month by freezing Japanese assets in the United States and declaring an embargo on petroleum shipments and other vital war materials to Japan. By late 1941 the United States had severed practically all commercial and financial relations with Japan. Though Japan continued to negotiate with the United States up to the day of the Pearl Harbour attack, the government of Prime Minister Tōjō Hideki decided on war.

Donald Stratton.

Donald Stratton.

Entire USS Arizona Crew

Entire USS Arizona Crew

Map of Pearl Harbor with attacks marked

Map of Pearl Harbour with attacks marked

“It was a terrible day, that day. Terrible,” said Donald Stratton. Stratton, who was then 19 years old, was burned over more than 65 percent of his body.

“Every time I think back on it,” he says, “I just thank the good Lord that I survived and I say a little prayer for the sailors and Marines who didn’t make it.”

Stratton managed to survive the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbour on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, an event that destroyed much of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and catapulted the nation into World War II.

75 years later, that’s how Stratton recalls the day that will forever live in infamy.

“Some sailors were hollering and pointing towards Fort Island and we seen one of the planes bank and it was the meatball on the wing and I thought well that’s the Japanese headed right for my battle station which was the sky control platform,” said Stratton. It was then that Stratton and his fellow crew men prepared for a battle they never imagined.

“Started firing at the high altitude bombers and they were so high we couldn’t even reach them,” said Stratton. “We could see the burst of our shells fall short so we were being strafed and dive bombed and everything else. We could see the pilots in the planes as they went by.”

Stratton, along with five other men, was saved that day when a sailor from another ship tossed them a rope. They climbed 100 feet, hand by hand above the burning fuel-coated water beneath them.

“Quite a few years ago I went to go get a gun permit and found out I didn’t have any fingerprints,” said Stratton. “That’s how bad my hands were burnt when I went across that line.”

Sixty five percent of Stratton’s body was severely burned. He spent the next 10 months recovering in various hospitals until he was medically discharged.

His willingness to rejoin the war effort led him to petition his way back into the Navy. When asked why he wanted to go back, his answer was simple.

“Oh I don’t know, it was just one of those things,” said Stratton.

He challenged Navy bureaucracy to return to uniform and even repeated basic training before rejoining the Pacific fleet. By 1943, he was sailing again aboard the destroyer USS Stack. He watched the Navy avenge the attack on Pearl Harbor with landings across the Pacific in New Guinea, the Philippines and Okinawa.

Stratton says his service was nothing special.

“It’s just something you do,” he said.

After the war, he married and settled in Colorado Springs. His son, Randy, said his father seldom talked about the war. “On the 25th anniversary, I was in seventh grade,” Randy Stratton said, recalling the first time his father opened up about Pearl Harbor. “That was the first time I saw him cry.”

Pearl Harbor survivor Donald G. Stratton. Stratton lives in Colorado Springs, CO and served in the Navy from 1940-1942 and received a medical discharge. Stratton then re-enlisted and served from 1944-1945. Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post

Pearl Harbour survivor Donald G. Stratton. Stratton lives in Colorado Springs, CO and served in the Navy from 1940-1942 and received a medical discharge. Stratton then re-enlisted and served from 1944-1945. Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post

The U.S.S Arizona burns during the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. (U.S. NAVY/GETTY IMAGES)

The U.S.S Arizona burns during the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. (U.S. NAVY/GETTY IMAGES)

It has been said that when an old person dies, it is like a library burning down. For the past 75 years, I have tried to share what I remember of World War II, but a day will come when I can no longer speak. Then what will become of everything I experienced on December 7, 1941? That’s why Donald Stratton wrote this account.

6:30 a.m.

Pearl Harbour

Chow call sounded, and I ate with the other men in my group. Typical Sunday fare: coffee, powdered eggs with ketchup, fried Spam, pancakes. There were a few local items, too, mostly fruit, such as oranges and berries. It was a leisurely breakfast, which was what was so great about Sundays aboard ship.

Ours was one of 185 ships of the U.S. Pacific Fleet that were moored in the harbor that morning. In all, there were 9 battleships, 12 heavy cruisers, 9 light cruisers, 53 destroyers, and a number of auxiliary vessels like tankers, repair ships, and a hospital ship. The 3 aircraft carriers in the fleet had been scheduled to be in the harbor, but because of poor weather, they remained at sea.

6:45 a.m.

Outside the entrance to Pearl Harbour

The USS Ward fired on the unidentified sub. The first shot from the 4-inch guns went high, but the second struck the sub at the waterline. The sub sank, and the destroyer finished her by dropping depth charges, after which a black oil slick three hundred yards astern could be spotted.

7:00 a.m.

The Ward reported the sinking of the submarine to authorities at Pearl, but the report was passed so slowly up the chain of command that no alert was given to the other ships in the harbor.

Shortly after 7:00 a.m.

Opana Point Radar Station, overlooking Oahu’s north shore

Two army privates, Joseph Lockard and George Elliot, just completed their 4:00 a.m.–7:00 a.m. shift, but Lockard agreed to give the more inexperienced Elliot additional training on the equipment while they waited for the truck that would take them to breakfast. During this time, a large blip appeared on the radar screen. At first he thought the equipment was faulty, but after studying the large mass, he concluded it was formation of planes approaching Oahu and 132 miles to the north.

Also shortly after 7:00 a.m.

Japanese carriers launched the second wave of planes, which included 77 dive bombers, 36 fighters, and 54 horizontal bombers.

7:10 a.m.

Opana Point Radar Station

Private Elliot notified headquarters at Fort Shafter, but the operator told him that all Signal Corps personnel had gone for breakfast. Elliot looked at his radar screen. The blip was now one hundred miles north of Oahu and closing. At 7:20 the operator called back, and Lockard answered. His superior officer, Lieutenant Kermit Tyler, was on the line and told him that a squadron of B-17s was scheduled to arrive at Pearl Harbor that morning from the West Coast, and not to be alarmed because it had to be them. The two privates then turned off the radar and went to breakfast.

7:40 a.m.

The skies above Oahu

Captain Mitsuo Fuchida led the first wave of Japanese planes over the mountains along the north shore of Oahu. Nine minutes later, Fuchida’s radioman signaled “To, To, To,” repeating the first syllable of the Japanese word for “charge,” signaling for the attack on Pearl Harbor to begin.

7:51 a.m.

Wheeler Field

Japanese Zeros attacked aircraft, hangars, and other buildings on the airstrip.

7:53 a.m.

Kaneohe and Ewa Mooring Mast Field

Enemy planes struck the airstrip, as Fuchida radioed on broadband so all could hear, “Tora, Tora, Tora,” which meant a “lightning attack,” alerting his superiors that their attack by surprise had been achieved.

7:55 a.m.

Pearl Harbour

Prep for morning colors sounded. At the start of each day, a signalman in the Pearl Harbor tower raised a white and blue “prep” flag. This signaled the color guards on the ships to raise the American flag, usually accompanied by each vessel’s band playing the national anthem. Ours had assembled in formation on the back of the fantail, like they did every morning. They never got a day off, not even Sundays.

While I was below decks, color guards had assembled on the decks of 8 battleships, 8 cruisers, 29 destroyers, and a variety of support ships that made up half of the Pacific Fleet. Seven of the battleships were moored on Battleship Row, along the southeast shore of Ford Island. Ford was a small island in the harbor, cut in half by a runway. On either side of the runway were hangars, along with support facilities for the Navy planes located there. The Arizona was sandwiched between the island on one side and the repair ship, Vestal, on its seaward side.

After breakfast, I saw a box of oranges, so I turned my sailor’s cap inside out and filled it with them to bring to my buddy from Arkansas, Harl, who was in sick bay with jaundice. I walked to my locker, located in the bakery passageway. Then I passed through the No. 2 casement to the forecastle deck. As I stepped into the sunshine, Harl’s oranges fell from my cap. . . .

I heard the drone of aircraft engines and bombs exploding on Ford Island. A commotion at the bow, several men pointing and yelling.

“They’re bombing the water tower on Ford Island!” someone hollered.

Several of us on deck ran to the bow in time to see our planes on the runway bursting into flames, and the water tower toppling over.

What the hell is going on? I asked myself.

The men were now pointing overhead and shouting. Craning my neck, I recognized the red “meatballs” on the silver wings of the planes doing the bombing: Japanese Zeros, emblazoned with the nation’s “Rising Sun” disk. The sky bristled with them, circling in figure eights like birds of prey, waiting their turn to swoop down.

We all ran to our battle station. I sped up steel ladders, my hands flying over the polished handrails that led to the sight-setter in the port antiaircraft director, which was my station. A Zero skimmed the surface of the harbor like a dragonfly, just twenty feet from the water, dropped its torpedo, then pulled up sharply. Pearl was a shallow harbor, varying in depth somewhere between forty and fifty feet, but standard torpedoes plunge to a depth of 150 feet before rising to attack depth. The Japanese knew if they used such a torpedo, it would dolphin, so to speak, hitting the surface and arcing downward before it stabilized its trajectory in a straight line toward its target. This would result in the torpedo hitting the muddy bottom and becoming embedded in it. Because of this, they modified it, adding wooden fins that acted as aerodynamic stabilizers, which were shed once the torpedo hit the water.

Their engineers got it right: as I was running, I felt a wallop on the ship’s hull, followed by a muffled explosion deep in its bowels. The torpedo shook me but didn’t slow my pace. I raced up the ladder to the radio shack, from there up another ladder to the signal bridge, up a third ladder to the bridge, and finally up a fourth ladder to the sky control platform.

I looked over my shoulder to take in the sweep of the harbor, which was in chaos. A Zero bore down on us, strafing our sailors and splintering our deck. It flew so low I could see the pilot in his leather helmet and goggles taunting me with a smirk and a wave as he passed, like a grinning devil.

The air defense alarm sounded, sending the top gunners to their stations. Shortly after that, general quarters sounded: “Attention! Attention! Attention! Man your battle stations! This is no drill! This is no drill!”

The deck was a frenzy of sailors running every which way. The band members, like the rest of the crew, ran to their battle station, in the ammunition hold several decks below. They would have gone to their assigned places, loading shells and bags of powder onto hoists that took them to the main guns on Nos. 1 and 2 turrets. The hoists were electrically operated, and it was the job of the band members to stand on either side of them to ensure that the bags of powder didn’t become dislodged, jammed, or snagged as they ascended. If they did, the black powder could spill out of them and create a hazard if a spark were to ignite it.

As my fellow sailor Lauren Bruner raced up the same ladder I had taken, a Zero fixed its sights on him. A blast from its guns, and bullets bit metal. One of those shots struck flesh, hitting the back of Lauren’s lower leg. He limped onto the sky platform, a trail of blood following him. The others of our team came after him, spilling into the metal enclosure, called the “director,” where we directed the antiaircraft guns—Harold Kuhn, Russell Lott, Earl Riner, George Hollowell, Alvin Dvorak, Fred Zimmerman, and Frank Lomax.

I was frantically setting the dials in the director that engaged the gears to set the sights of the antiaircraft guns. Behind each of them was a ready box of ammunition, which only held twenty-five rounds. We immediately loaded the ammo and started firing at the dive bombers. But they were flying so low we risked hitting the Vestal on one side of us and our own men on Ford Island on the other.

We turned our sights on the high-altitude bombers and fired at a 90-degree angle. When the crewmen loaded the guns, the gunnery officer peered through a portal and set the range and path of the target. I cranked the gauge in front of him and yelled the coordinates to the gun below.

We sent volley after volley of antiaircraft fire their way, the shells filling the sky with puffs of black smoke. Antiaircraft shells didn’t explode on impact like other rounds. They had fuses inside them, that could be set to explode, say, fifteen seconds after it left the muzzle of the gun. If you found the shells were exploding too low, you adjusted the next ones to go off twenty or twenty-five seconds after they were shot from the gun.

No matter the adjustments we made, though, the Japanese bombers were too high, and our shells just couldn’t touch them. It was like boxing an opponent whose reach was twice what yours was. No matter how many times you swung or how hard, you could never hit back. All the while, you were getting pummeled. The beating we took, it was brutal. We took so many hits, and not just our ship. . .

We were sitting ducks. Not just the Arizona, but every ship in the harbor. And there was nothing we could do about it. The dive bombers were too low, and almost two miles above, the horizontal bombers were too high for our guns. And with few exceptions, our planes, which the Japanese strategically hit first, never got a chance to get off the ground. We couldn’t even make a run for it into open waters, because it took two and a half hours for the boilers of a battleship to fire up.

And so we threw our shells into the sky, as many as we could, hoping the shrapnel might shatter a cockpit, rupture a fuel line, clip a propeller. It’s all we could do. Shoot and hope.

 

Sailors Running Gun Firing Drills on Deck of USS Arizona

Sailors Running Gun Firing Drills on Deck of USS Arizona

The foremast of the USS Arizona toppled forward into the cavity created by the explosion of her forward powder magazine. Photo: Official United States Navy Photograph.

The foremast of the USS Arizona toppled forward into the cavity created by the explosion of her forward powder magazine. Photo: Official United States Navy Photograph.

Mast of USS Arizona Falling during Pearl Harbor Attack.

Mast of USS Arizona Falling during Pearl Harbour Attack. Photo: Official United States Navy Photograph.

Pearl Harbour attack as seen by the attackers.

Pearl Harbour attack as seen by the attackers. Photo: Official United States Navy Photograph.

 

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On March 16, 1914, the New York Navy Yard laid down the keel to begin construction of battleship number 39, which would later be named Arizona. Original speculation was that the ship would be named the North Carolina, the home state of Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels. The Pennsylvania class (consisting of the Arizona and the Pennsylvania) formed the next step of the US Navy’s response to the naval arms race that had begun in 1906 when the Royal Navy completed the HMS Dreadnought. The ship was launched on June 19, 1915. It was Miss Esther Ross of Prescott that christened the ship with both the traditional champagne and a bottle of the first water to pass over the spillway of Roosevelt Dam, which was completed in 1911 but took until April 15, 1915 to fill. Construction continued on the floating hull and the ship was commissioned on October 17, 1916.

During 1917, residents of Arizona organized a state-wide fund raising effort to pay for a silver service to present to the Arizona.

The Arizona experienced considerable problems with her engines during her trials to the extent that the blades were stripped from one her turbines, requiring months in dry dock to replace. The work was finished in March 1917, and the Arizona served with the Atlantic Fleet as a gunnery training ship during World War I. Coal was more plentiful than oil in Great Britain during the war, and the modern oil fired boilers on the Arizona prevented her from joining the other US battleships serving with the British Grand Fleet.

During the years between the world wars, Arizona carried on with the routine of a Navy ship in peace time, conducting training, gunnery practice, fleet exercises, cruises and routine shipyard maintenance. Among the events of interest during this time were:

  • In 1920, the Arizona began to carry airplanes on board for scouting and spotting the fall of shells from the ship’s guns.
  • In early March 1924, Madeline Blair stowed away on the Arizona and wasn’t discovered until April 12. She was apparently attempting to ride to San Pedro (on the way to Hollywood) and was providing favors to crewmen in return for shelter and food. She was discovered after a Chief Radioman happened to overhear a sailor remark on her presence. As a result courts-martial of the men involved were held and twenty-three men were sentenced to prison, the longest for ten years.
  • The Arizona received a thorough modernization beginning in 1929. The entire superstructure was replaced, including the lattice or cage masts which had been in place since construction. Torpedo bulges were fitted, as were additional horizontal armour for protection from air attacks. New boilers and turbines were fitted, the torpedo tubes were removed and new tripod masts replaced the cage masts. The work was completed in March 1931.
  • Upon completion of the modernization, the Arizona carried President Hoover on a vacation cruise in the Caribbean.
  • On March 10, 1933 the Arizona was anchored at San Pedro when the Long Beach earthquake struck. The ship provided a shore party that helped patrol the area, provided communications, set up first aid stations and provided food and shelter for those made homeless by the earthquake.

As relations between the US and Japan declined and the possibility of fighting in the Pacific became more likely, operations at Pearl Harbour were designed to prepare the fleet for war. On October 22, 1941, while conducting exercises with the Oklahoma and Nevada, the Arizona was struck on the port side by the Oklahoma. A V-shaped hole, four feet wide by twelve feet long, was opened in the torpedo bulge. The Arizona was in dry-dock at Pearl Harbour for a few weeks to repair it.

Mast of USS Arizona Engulfed in Flames during Pearl Harbor Attack.

Mast of USS Arizona Engulfed in Flames during Pearl Harbor Attack.

USS Arizona Explodes.

USS Arizona Explodes.

December 7, 1941

Japanese aircraft appeared in the air over Pearl Harbor just before 8:00 am on this Sunday morning. The color detail was on deck in anticipation of raising the flag at the stern at 8:00. The Arizona came under attack almost immediately, and at about 8:10 received a hit by an 800-kilogram bomb just forward of turret two on the starboard side. Within a few seconds, the forward powder magazines exploded, gutting the forward part of the ship. The foremast and forward superstructure collapsed forward into the void created by the explosion and turrets one and two, deprived of support, dropped more than 20 feet relative to their normal position. The explosion ignited furious fires in the forward part of the ship.

The majority of the crew members were either killed by the explosion and fire or were trapped by the rapid sinking of the ship. Many of the survivors displayed remarkable courage in assisting their shipmates to safety. Lieutenant Commander Samuel G. Fuqua was awarded the Medal of Honor for his role in leading the rescue of other survivors. It was also awarded posthumously to Rear Admiral Isaac Kidd and Captain Franklin Van Valkenburgh. 1,177 of the crew died on the ship.

During the following months and years of World War II, the destruction of the Arizona came to symbolize the reason the US was fighting. As recounted by William Manchester:

“Remember Pearl Harbour” became an American shibboleth and the title of the country’s most popular war song, but it was the loss of that great ship which seared the minds of navy men. Six months later, when naval Lieutenant Wilmer E. Gallaher turned the nose of his Dauntless dive-bomber down toward the Akagi off Midway, the memory of that volcanic eruption in Pearl Harbour, which he had witnessed, flashed across his mind. As the Akagi blew up, he exulted: “Arizona, I remember you!”

After the attack, the ship was left resting on the bottom with the deck just awash. In the days and weeks following, efforts were made to recover the bodies of the crew and the ship’s records. Eventually, further recovery of bodies became fruitless and the bodies of at least 900 crewmen remained in the ship. During 1942, salvage work to recover as much of the ship as was practical began. The masts and superstructure were removed for scrap and the two turrets aft were salvaged for use at shore batteries on Hawaii. The forward part of the ship had received the most damage, and only the guns of turret two were removed while turret one was left in place. On December 1, 1942, the ship was stricken from the registry of US Navy vessels.

DONALD STRATTON WITH KEN GIRE FROM THE BOOK ALL THE GALLANT MEN

All the Gallant Men – Donald Stratton, Ken Gire – E-book – HarperCollins

The Life and Legacy of the USS Arizona

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