Superheroes imagined are entirely different from the real heroes who serve the general public on a daily basis. From the first responders to the United States military, those men and women who put their safety at risk for mine deserve honors and praise that we sometimes limit to imagined heroes. This weekend, a group of friends and family came together in Colorado Springs, Colorado to honor one of these living legends, a real hero who came of age during the crucible of fire known as the Attack on Pearl Harbor and World War II. More importantly, this 96-year-old young man was burned over seventy percent of his body and only escaped the burning flames of the USS Arizona by the grace of God and disobedience of an order. But after healing for a year, rejoined the fight and went on to serve on the destroyer USS Stack during some of the bloodiest invasions in the Pacific Theater.
What makes this man a real hero? First, real heroes do not run from the fight; they move towards them. When the bombs started falling on 7 December 1941, he did not wait for the sounding of ‘General Quarters,’ but moved swiftly to his battle station, the Sky Control Tower, with the rest of his crew and started directing fire against the incoming Japanese high-altitude and torpedo bombers that were bombing, torpedoing, and strafing the ships and men of Battleship Row. At approximately 8:05 am Hawaii time, an armor-piercing bomb found its mark just forward of Turret II and pierced the deck and exploded in the forward magazine. The subsequent explosion and fire engulfed the entire ship and left 1,177 sailors and Marines dead. Of the three-hundred who survived, the sailors in the Sky Control Tower were quickly being cooked alive from the fire and smoke that engulfed the ship. Through the flames, the six survivors saw a sailor cutting the lines that held the Vestal fast to the Arizona. Over the noise and bullets, the men shouted, whistled, and prayed while trying to get the unknown sailor’s attention. Finally, they succeeded in getting his attention, and the sailor made a throw that would be the envy of Nolan Ryan or Tom Brady. A monkey-fist attached to a heaving line flew straight and true over seventy feet to the embattled and cooking men whose skin was peeling away in layers due to the heat. To quote our hero, ‘I ripped the hanging skin from my arms and threw it to the deck because it was in the way.’ The six survivors pulled the heaving line and tied off a heavier rope that they could then use to crawl hand-over-hand out of the fiery hell that engulfed them to the relative safety of the USS Vestal. Once on the Vestal, the ship moved away from the USS Arizona because the flames threatened to overwhelm the vessel and sink it as well. Of the six men who survived the perilous journey across seventy feet of flaming water, whizzing bullets, and their own endurance, one succumbed to his injuries on the deck of the Vestal, and five survived the journey to the Mare Island Hospital in California where their healing would begin. The physical scars of that day are still visible in the two survivors from that horrific experience still remaining alive in 2018.
Another trait of a real hero is that they inherently do the right thing without thinking and worrying whether the consequences will haunt them or hurt them in the future. The unknown sailor of the USS Vestal was one of those real heroes because he disobeyed the order to cut the lines and threw the men a lifeline they could use to save themselves. Once the rope was taut, the unknown sailor went about other business because he could not assist them in the treacherous climb they had to endure any further. His disobedience would not be punished but would be paramount in the Navy’s refusal to honor his courage during the horror that was Pearl Harbor that day.
How do men who are in unspeakable pain and peril overcome the fear to fight for their own survival instead of giving up and dying? The author has no clue because he has not been in a situation requiring the unspeakable courage that the men of Pearl Harbor exhibited that day, but had the privilege on 8 June 2018 to honor one of the five men who survived that fateful day. Four additional generations are alive because of the courage and integrity of the unknown sailor of the USS Vestal, who is no longer hidden from history. BMC Joe George was the hero who saved Donald Stratton, Alvin Dvorak, Lauren Bruner, Harold Kuhn, Ronnie Lott, and Earl Riner.
Five generations of Strattons and Joe George’s daughter, JoeAnn Taylor along with countless adopted family members attended the dedication of the Fillmore Street Bridge as the Donald G. Stratton USS Arizona Survivor Bridge. Donald Stratton was being honored by the State of Colorado, but the Strattons have never forgotten who gave their family life and shared the honor with the daughter of Joe George. The family presented her with a wooden American Flag with the Bronze Star Award created by Zachary Smith and his company, US Veteran Woodworks.
For the author, while the ceremony honored Donald Stratton, it marked a way to bridge the past to the future and never was this truer than the two youngest supporters who traveled more than a thousand miles with their families to honor their hero. The two wore t-shirts emblazoned with the words, “Some People Don’t Believe in Super Heroes, but they have never met, Donald Stratton – Pearl Harbor Survivor.” Landon Knestrick, six years old, and his family traveled from their home in North Carolina to honor Mr. Stratton. Monk Nash, seven years old, and his father and grandfather came from Southern California to honor his hero. These young men represent the next generation of Americans who will carry the torch of remembrance for the members of the Greatest Generation who faced tyranny and defeated it in the bloodiest conflict in world history. Finally, the author believes that superheroes are not products of the imagination but are made of flesh and blood with excellent examples in Joe George, USS Arizona Survivors Donald Stratton, Lou Conter, Lauren Bruner, Ken Potts, and Lonnie Cook, and young naturalist-to-be and soldier-to-be, Landon Knestrick and Monk Nash. The world is a better place because of these and other real superheroes.