Don Stratton, who escaped a burning USS Arizona by making a harrowing hand-over-hand climb across a rope to an adjacent ship on Dec. 7, 1941, died Saturday, leaving just two living survivors of the famed battleship.
“We are profoundly sad to say that last night, Feb. 15, USS Arizona Survivor Donald Stratton passed away peacefully in his sleep surrounded by his wife of nearly 70 years, Velma, and his son Randy,” Pearl Harbor National Memorial
Daniel Martinez, chief historian for the memorial, said, “God bless him and his beloved family. My hero is gone but will always be in my heart. He is now part of our national memory.”
The Colorado Springs man was 97. An Arizona crew that once numbered 1,512 is now down to two. Survivors Lou Conter and Ken Potts are both 98.
It was 8:06 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, when death raced through the USS Arizona, chasing them all. A 1,760-pound Japanese high-altitude armor-piercing bomb had penetrated the Arizona’s decks 40 feet from the bow, igniting a million pounds of gunpowder for the ship’s massive 14-inch guns.
Stratton, then a seaman 1st class, described it in his book, “All the Gallant Men,” as a “great sucking sound, like a whoosh” that rocked the ship with concussive force.
The explosion blew apart the forward decks, collapsing turret No. 1 some 28 feet and sending a fireball 500 feet into the air. Stratton, 19, and several other men were in a metal box 70 feet off the water — the port side anti-aircraft “director” — where they were in danger of being cooked to death.
“The flames swallowed the foremast where we were,” the Nebraska native said in the book. “As they shot through the two openings of the enclosure, we shielded ourselves by taking shelter under some of the equipment, our hands covering our mouths and eyes. But the flames found us, catching us all on fire, burning off our clothes, our hair, our skin.”
Six men, Stratton included, were saved by climbing hand-over-hand on a rope thrown at the last second by a sailor on the adjacent repair ship USS Vestal in one of the most dramatic rescues of the day.
Stratton received burns over 65 percent of his body. A total of 1,177 men were killed on the Arizona.
Conter, who was on the stern of the battleship when the big bomb hit, returned to Pearl Harbor for the most recent Dec. 7 observance, in part to be present for the interment of fellow crew member Lauren Bruner.
Bruner, who also made the climb across the rope with Stratton, died Sept. 10 at age 98.
“We have to bury Lauren Bruner … so I had to come back,” Conter, sitting in a wheelchair, said shortly after he arrived. “I’ll come out every year I can until I’m gone.”
For Stratton, Bruner and the four other men, salvation appeared in the form of Joe George, a sailor and boxer on the Vestal.
The order had been given for the Vestal to cut loose from the Arizona and head for open water, Stratton said in his book. Before George extended a lifeline to the men on the Arizona, he had been using an axe to cut the mooring lines.
George and the ship’s captain “were engaged in some kind of a debate, a heated one” that conveyed to Stratton that “we didn’t have a chance.”
But George stood his ground, and the six men, although badly burned, were able to climb hand over hand above oily, burning water to safety.
“One thing is for certain: Had Joe George not stood up for us, had he not been a rebel and refused to cut the line connecting the Vestal to the Arizona, we would have been cooked to death,” Stratton wrote. “If anyone deserved a Medal of Honor that day, in my opinion, it was him.”
The Navy said George, who died in 1996, was commended in 1942 but he never received any medal for his actions. For more than a decade, Stratton and Bruner lobbied for George to get a Navy Cross or other medal.
In 2017, Stratton, Bruner and Potts met at the Pentagon with the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, secretary of defense and chief of naval operations to honor George.
In conjunction with the Dec. 7 ceremony that year, the deputy commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet presented a Bronze Star with “V” Device for Valor to George’s daughter, Joe Ann Taylor, aboard the USS Arizona Memorial.
Stratton, Bruner and Conter were front and center.
“One of Donald’s final wishes was that people remember Pearl Harbor and the men aboard the USS Arizona. Share their story and never forget those who gave all for our great country,” Stratton’s family said on Facebook.
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