94-year-old Donald Stratton of Colorado Springs, CO relates his story of survival on episode #457 of Hometown Heroes, airing February 3-5, 2017. A native of Red Cloud, NE, Stratton was aboard the battleship USS Arizona (BB-39) on the morning of December 7, 1941.
His story is detailed extensively in the New York Times bestselling book All the Gallant Men, which he wrote in collaboration with Ken Gire. Before enlisting in the Navy, Don was a star high school athlete in Red Cloud, where he remembers the “hand to mouth” realities of growing up during the Great Depression as one of four children in the Stratton home. “You didn’t have any money, you couldn’t buy anything,” you’ll hear him say. “You just existed.” The lure of 21 dollars per month drew him to the Navy, and he enlisted in October 1940, just months after graduating from high school. After boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Training Center, he was transported by train to Bremerton, WA, where he joined the crew of the USS Arizona. Assigned to the sixth division on the port side, Don’s job on the ensuing journey to Hawaii included operating the incinerator, destroying garbage produced on the ship while at sea. December 7, 1941 started out as “just a normal day” for Stratton and the 1700-man crew of the battleship. When general quarters sounded, he had to hurry up to his battle station, a port side anti-aircraft gun position sixty feet above the deck on the foremast.
He began firing at enemy aircraft, but soon explosions from bombs and torpedoes were rocking the battleship. What he remembers as a “horrendous explosion” sent flames 400 feet into the air. “The bomb that hit on the starboard side behind #2 turret went into a million pounds of ammunition and it blew up,” Stratton explains.
“Just a fireball that engulfed us up there where we were at, and no way to escape or get off.”
Burned over the majority of his body, he knew he was trapped, high above the deck of the soon-to-be-sinking ship. The repair ship USS Vestal was moored alongside the Arizona, and a seaman named Joe George threw a heaving line to the trapped sailors. They were able to secure a line between the two ships, and Stratton was one of six men to escape the burning ship by descending 70 feet, hand over hand.
“My hands were burnt,” he explains. “I don’t even have any fingerprints.”
His already scalded hands lost more flesh with each excruciating reach down the life-saving rope. From the Vestal, Don was taken by motor launch, then open air truck to the US Naval Hospital at Pearl Harbor. After initial treatment there, he was shipped to Mare Island Naval Hospital in California, arriving on Christmas Day.