How Pearl Harbor touched lives in ways that will never be forgotten
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.”
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.
Lt. Jim Downing, USS West Virginia. Age on Dec. 7, 1941: 27.