On December 7, 1941, the USS Arizona and the USS Vestal floated side-by-side when the first planes of the Japanese Empire came into view and started strafing, bombing, and torpedoing Battleship Row. Seaman First Class Donald Stratton enjoyed breakfast at 7:00 am before heading to the sick bay to visit his friend, Harl Nelson. During the walk to sickbay, he heard sailors hollering about something going on topside. Once able to see Ford Island from the bow of the USS Arizona, the image witnessed would haunt him until today. Swarms and swarms of planes overhead had the red meatball of the Japanese Empire, and his first thought, “what the hell is going on?” needled him as he made his way to his battle station in the Sky Control Platform. Arriving before ‘General Quarters’ was sounded, his fellow sailors and he had a front-row seat to witness the carnage inflicted when the 1700lb armor-piercing bomb ignited the one million pounds of powder in USS Arizona’s forward magazine. The explosion of 500 tons of black powder lifted the massive battleship 30 feet into the air before engulfing it in flames. Those flames would burn upwards to Mr. Stratton’s battle station and threaten to snuff out the lives of six boys who might never become men because of the searing burns and toxic smoke of ignited clothing and fuel oil.
Through the smoke and flames, the men on the control tower saw an unknown sailor cutting lines that held the repair ship Vestal fast to the USS Arizona and started screaming to get his attention. Just about at the end of their strength and endurance, the unknown sailor heard their pleas, threw them a lifeline, and gave the men a chance to live and raise families. Chief Boatswain’s Mate Joseph Leon George was the unknown sailor who gave life back to Donald Stratton, Lauren Bruner, Alvin Dvorak, Harold Kuhn, Russell Lott, and Earl Riner.
On December 7, 2017, three of the five remaining survivors of the USS Arizona and the Pearl Harbor Attack, Donald Stratton, Lauren Bruner, and Louis Conter, were in attendance on the USS Arizona Memorial when the United States Navy posthumously awarded the Bronze Star with V decoration to BMC Joseph Leon George. Chief George’s daughter, JoeAnn Taylor, was on hand to accept the award on behalf of her family, and she thanked the Stratton family profusely for their tireless effort on behalf of her father to deliver this well-deserved and long-overdue honor.
Seaman First Class Donald Stratton has been instrumental in keeping the memory of the man who saved his life and the story of the Arizona alive by willingly telling his story. For his service to the country and his home state of Colorado, the Colorado General Assembly designated the Fillmore Street Bridge over I-25 as the “Donald ‘Don’ Stratton Bridge” with the dedication set for Friday, June 8, 2018, at 1:00 pm. It will be a special event and will bring together many of us who had the honor of attending the Bronze Star Presentation that recognized another hero of the Greatest Generation. Just like the Bronze Star to Chief Boatswain’s Mate Joseph Leon George, this honor for Donald Stratton is long-overdue and well-deserved.
These heroes of World War II are now all in their nineties, and we must take the time and every opportunity to hear and record them telling their story. Without Joe George’s oral history from the University of North Texas, the Strattons would never have known who saved their family and gave four generations life. More than that, we would never have known that wonderful story or many other stories just as meaningful to other families.
How can you help? Get involved with your local historical society, the World War II Foundation, local college or university, or work directly with the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress. We must do whatever it takes to preserve the first-hand accounts of the men and women who not only survived the Great Depression but defeated tyranny on a global scale.