On the morning of December 7, 1941, six sailors were rescued from the burning and sinking USS Arizona (BB-39) by Joe George, a crew member of the repair ship USS Vestal (AR-4). On February 15, 2020, one of those men, Donald Stratton, passed away after spending years working to gain recognition for the hero who saved him.
Prior to his passing, Stratton was one of only three surviving USS Arizona crewmen. Now only Lou Conter and Ken Potts remain to continue sharing their memories of the events of December 7, 1941 and the Pearl Harbor attack that launched the United States into World War II.
Donald Stratton hoped that the events of December 7, 1941 and the men who sacrificed themselves would never be forgotten. “One of Donald’s final wishes was that people remember Pearl Harbor and the men aboard the USS Arizona,” his wife Velma wrote on Facebook. “Share their story and never forget those who gave all for our great country.”
Sharing his story had been a large part of Stratton’s life after surviving the attack and fighting throughout World War II. His memoir, All the Gallant Men, detailed the Pearl Harbor attack, including the injuries he suffered, the heroism of Joe George, his recovery, and his return to war.
Born July 14, 1922, Donald Stratton grew up in Red Cloud, NE. After graduating high school, he did what many young men did during the 1930s and ’40s and enlisted in the military. In the fall of 1940, he joined the Navy and was stationed aboard USS Arizona, assigned to man an anti-aircraft gun. Just over a year later, he found himself in the middle of the devastating Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Donald Stratton at Pearl Harbor
In the early hours of December 7, 1941, Stratton stepped out onto Arizona’s deck and spotted the Japanese dive bombers launching their assault. When the call to battle stations was made, he climbed three ladders to reach his station. As he attempted to direct the 5-inch guns, the bombers swooped in on the ship and her crew.
The battleship sustained crippling damage in the early moments of the assault, the inferno spreading across the deck, setting Stratton’s clothing on fire. He and other survivors gathered together and signaled for help, which caught the attention of Joe George aboard the nearby USS Vestal.
Though George had been ordered to sever the line with Arizona, he kept the two ships tied together and threw a line to the men aboard the doomed battleship. His actions saved the injured Stratton and five of his shipmates.
Owing to his injuries, Stratton was discharged in September 1942 and sent back to Red Cloud. Despite the horror he experienced aboard Arizona, he spent the next year itching to return to the Navy. Finally, in February 1944, he was allowed to reenlist.
Stratton and the War in the Pacific
Donald Stratton returned to the Pacific, took part in campaigns in New Guinea and the Philippines, and the Battle of Okinawa. Just as he saw it begin, Stratton saw the war end. After his service to the Navy was finished, he was employed at a diving company and later on an offshore drilling platform.
Honoring Joe George
With the Pearl Harbor attack long behind him, Stratton and the others who owed their lives to Joe George began a campaign to have the Vestal crew member honored. As he had ignored a direct order, it wasn’t until Stratton and the others spoke up that he was awarded with a Bronze Star in 2017.
Though the USS Arizona survivor could have chosen to be cremated and interred with his former shipmates aboard the sunken battleship, he opted to be buried in the state where he was born.
Donald Stratton is survived by his wife of 69 years, four children, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren who will continue to share his stories of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the heroes who emerged that day.