Colorado re­mem­bers

How Pearl Har­bor touched lives in ways that will never be for­got­ten

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Kevin Simp­son

Don­ald Stratton awoke early that morn­ing, nudged from sleep be­neath an over­hang on the deck of the USS Ari­zona by the slow stir of Sun­day ac­tiv­ity. With no ma­jor main­te­nance sched­uled, he as­sisted a clean sweep­down be­fore grab­bing some chow and, on his way top­side, a cou­ple of or­anges for a buddy in sick bay.

Ap­proach­ing the bat­tle­ship’s bow, he saw sailors point­ing in the direc­tion of ex­plo­sions on Ford Is­land, the home of a naval air sta­tion in Pearl Har­bor on the Hawai­ian is­land of Oahu. As Stratton drew closer, he saw a plane bank steeply, re­veal­ing dis­tinc­tive red dots on the wings that iden­ti­fied it as Ja­panese.

He scram­bled up a half dozen lad­ders to his bat­tle sta­tion as sight-set­ter in the No. 2 port­side anti-air­craft direc­tor, which cal­i­brated fire at the planes buzzing in waves across the har­bor, where the Ari­zona rested next to a re­pair ship, the USS Vestal.

“We could see the planes; they were straf­ing us and dive-bomb­ing us,” re­calls Stratton, 94, from the liv­ing room of his home in Colorado Springs.

“The pi­lots kind of flew half­way be­tween us and the Vestal, and they waved at us and smiled.

“What the hell’s go­ing on?” he re­calls think­ing.

That day, Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Har­bor awoke to a dev­as­tat­ing sur­prise at­tack that crip­pled the U.S. Pa­cific Fleet and, in 90 min­utes, rained hor­ror that left 2,403 mil­i­tary and civil­ian per­son­nel dead and 1,178 wounded.

As the 75th an­niver­sary ap­proaches, the ranks of sur­viv­ing wit­nesses have thinned. Stratton, for in­stance, is one of only five liv­ing sur­vivors from the USS Ari­zona, which ac­counted for al­most half the ca­su­al­ties af­ter a Ja­panese bomb det­o­nated a store of am­mu­ni­tion and fuel to cat­a­clysmic ef­fect.

He and oth­ers will gather in Hawaii for what they sus­pect will be a last ma­jor re­union and a time for wide­spread re­flec­tion on the event that trig­gered enor­mous po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural reper­cus­sions — glob­ally and na­tion­ally. A na­tion just emerg­ing from the Great De­pres­sion and hun­kered in an iso­la­tion­ist co­coon sud­denly was cat­a­pulted, within days, into both the­aters of the Sec­ond World War.

The chain re­ac­tion re­ver­ber­ated in Colorado, where do­mes­tic con­cerns still dom­i­nated a pop­u­lace inch­ing to­ward eco­nomic re­cov­ery while keep­ing an eye on the war that raged across the At­lantic.

“That in­stantly changes when Pearl Har­bor is at­tacked,” says Ja­son Hanson, direc­tor of in­ter­pre­ta­tion and re­search for His­tory Colorado.

And Colorado’s Ja­pane­seAmer­i­can com­mu­nity, he adds, has­tened to add its voices to the ris­ing tide of pa­tri­o­tism.

“They were telling who­ever would lis­ten that they are Amer­i­cans, that they fully in­tend to sup­port Amer­ica in this war ef­fort,” Hanson says. “But it’s clear that they see the peril and are try­ing to get out in front of it.”

Pub­lic at­ti­tudes would play out in both pol­icy and pol­i­tics as Colorado hosted one of 10 in­tern­ment camps that con­fined Ja­panese-Amer­i­cans amid fears that spies, col­lab­o­ra­tors or a “fifth col­umn” lurked among the West Coast pop­u­la­tion.

With the war ef­fort ramp­ing up, Colorado played a key role on sev­eral other fronts. The Army’s 10th Moun­tain Di­vi­sion trained at Camp Hale near Leadville from 1942-45 to pro­duce soldiers with moun­taineer­ing skills that paid div­i­dends against Ger­man forces — and later, in launch­ing the state’s ski and out­door gear in­dus­tries.

Camp Car­son, the Army in­stal­la­tion near Colorado Springs that even­tu­ally would be­come the sprawl­ing mil­i­tary and eco­nomic force that is Fort Car­son, sprang up in the wake of the Pearl Har­bor at­tack. The fa­cil­ity even­tu­ally trained more than 100,000 soldiers for duty in World War II and also housed nearly 9,000 mostly Ital­ian and Ger­man pris­on­ers of war, whose la­bor helped make up for a short­age of Colorado do­mes­tic work­ers dur­ing the war.

The Univer­sity of Colorado, seek­ing ways to bring train­ing pro­grams to the cam­pus that was los­ing male stu­dents to the war ef­fort, be­came home to a fast­track Ja­panese-lan­guage school. Thanks largely to the GI Bill that spurred rapid growth in higher ed­u­ca­tion na­tion­wide, CU saw its en­roll­ment vir­tu­ally dou­ble, launch­ing it to­ward sta­tus as a re­search in­sti­tu­tion.

Sev­enty-five years later, it’s the per­sonal sto­ries that sprang from Pearl Har­bor, some­times from vastly dif­fer­ent van­tage points, that res­onate with the in­ten­sity of the times, co­a­lesc­ing around a com­mon theme: Never for­get, never let it hap­pen again.

Stratton, stand­ing on the USS Ari­zona when the ex­plod­ing mu­ni­tions and fuel burned him over nearly 75 per­cent of his body, des­per­ately sought es­cape from the in­ferno.

“It was self-preser­va­tion af­ter the bomb hit,” he re­calls. “Our clothes were on fire. We just pulled the skin off our arms and threw it down, be­cause it was in the way. It just dropped off.”

Stratton and five oth­ers on the Ari­zona got the at­ten­tion of a sailor on board the Vestal, and the man — they later learned his name was Joe Ge­orge — threw them a small heav­ing line and at­tached a larger line to it that they could use as a hand-over­hand route to the smaller ship. All six of them man­aged the har­row­ing crawl.

“You had to keep go­ing or else you didn’t make it,” Stratton re­counts. “You’d drop in the wa­ter. And the wa­ter was on fire.”

Stratton spent nearly a year in a hospi­tal re­cov­er­ing from his burns, re­learned how to walk and then re­ceived a med­i­cal dis­charge.

He re­turned to his na­tive Ne­braska for a year — then reen­listed. He be­came a gun­ner’s mate on the de­stroyer USS Stack, and re­turned to ac­tion in the Pa­cific.

Like many vet­er­ans from that era, he didn’t talk at length about his ex­pe­ri­ence, and still de­clines to re­count some as­pects of the at­tack that left him to deal with both phys­i­cal and emo­tional scars.

“I did wear long-sleeve shirts and cov­ered up most of the time,” he says, adding that his ef­fort to ap­ply for a con­cealed weapon per­mit re­vealed that the burns had all but erased even his fin­ger­prints. “I spoke to chil­dren in schools and stuff like this, but just with an idea to keep Amer­ica alert. We still have to keep alert right now.”

Only about 10 min­utes and one high­way exit from Stratton’s home, 103-year-old Jim Down­ing, cur­rently the sec­ond-old­est Pearl Har­bor sur­vivor, still wears his Navy dress uni­form af­ter a visit to a Colorado Springs school hon­or­ing Vet­er­ans Day.

Old news­pa­per clip­pings and photos cover his din­ing room ta­ble, pro­vid­ing his­tor­i­cal con­text for his own har­row­ing tale.

Though as­signed to the USS West Vir­ginia, Down­ing, newly mar­ried, lived on shore next to the base.

On Sun­day morn­ing, his wife was fix­ing break­fast for him and sev­eral ship­mates when, shortly be­fore 8 a.m., the group heard the first ex­plo­sions, fol­lowed by a ra­dio broad­cast con­firm­ing the en­emy at­tack.

Down­ing said a hur­ried good­bye to his bride and with the oth­ers piled into a ve­hi­cle and headed for their ship — only to come un­der di­rect fire from above.

“The first Ja­panese plane I saw came in low and slow, and opened up with his ma­chine guns, but the pi­lot didn’t bank far enough and it went over my head,” Down­ing says. “He had his (cock­pit) cover back. I don’t think I saw the color of his eyes, but it was al­most like it was that close.”

With ships po­si­tioned in tan­dem in the crowded har­bor, Down­ing boarded the USS Ten­nessee, which was clos­est to shore, then po­si­tioned one of the ship’s big guns so that he could slide down the bar­rel to the wooden deck of the West Vir­ginia. Oil fires were spread­ing quickly to­ward the ves­sel’s am­mu­ni­tion “ready boxes,” so he grabbed a fire hose and kept the flames from trig­ger­ing a se­condary ex­plo­sion.

But he couldn’t take his eye off the bod­ies that lay around him.

“As I was us­ing the fire hose, I thought the par­ents of these guys won’t ever know what hap­pened, they’ll just get a mes­sage they were killed in ac­tion,” Down­ing re­calls.

“So I went around mem­o­riz­ing the name tags. I was the post­mas­ter on the ship at that time, had ac­cess to all the ad­dresses, so later I wrote a lit­tle re­port on each one of them.”

Once the fire was out, Down­ing headed to a hospi­tal to visit a friend and was shocked to see so many burn vic­tims, many of whom would not sur­vive the night. He found a note­book and spoke to as many as he could, telling them that if they gave him their ad­dress and dic­tated a short note, he would see that their rel­a­tives re­ceived it.

“I was very sur­prised,” he says. “In­stead of com­plain­ing, ev­ery guy I talked to told his par­ents, ‘Don’t worry, I’m go­ing to be all right, I look for­ward to see­ing you.’ Not a word of com­plaint. And as I say, most of them died that night.”

Down­ing, who wound up serv­ing 24 years in the Navy, says that in ret­ro­spect, the at­tack pro­voked sur­prise, fear, anger and re­solve — re­ac­tions re­flected across the coun­try at that time.

“But the over­ar­ch­ing thing was pride in the way that our guys re­sponded,” Down­ing says. “It was al­most su­per­nat­u­ral that ev­ery­body saw what needed to be done and did it in­stinc­tively. Ev­ery­body was a hero that morn­ing.”

Associated Press file

The bat­tle­ship USS Ari­zona burns as it top­ples over into the sea dur­ing a Ja­panese sur­prise at­tack on Pearl Har­bor, Dec. 7, 1941.

Don­ald Stratton, USS Ari­zona. Age on Dec. 7, 1941: 19.

Sources: Map­s4News/HERE; uss­west­vir­ginia.org; The Na­tional Park Ser­vice; “Pearl Har­bor from In­famy to Great­ness” by Craig Nel­son The Associated Press

Lt. Jim Down­ing, USS West Vir­ginia. Age on Dec. 7, 1941: 27.

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