Three unlikely friends, separated by nearly a century, reunited Friday as a cadre of politicians and military officials dedicated the Fillmore Street bridge spanning Interstate 25 in Donald Stratton's honor.
Stratton, one of four remaining survivors of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, sat quietly outside his home in Holiday Village, northeast of the bridge, as many testified to his courage and sacrifice for America.
His friends Steven Nash, 7, and Landon Knestrick, 6, took their place by his side after the ceremony.
"I couldn't do without these two," Stratton said with a quiet chuckle.
The surprise Japanese attack killed more than 2,400 Americans and pushed the country into World War II.
Stratton was at his battle station on the USS Arizona as the ship exploded, killing all but 300 of his shipmates. Although most of his body was burned, Stratton recovered and re-enlisted in the Navy to continue fighting in the war.
Landon Knestrick watched a pair of PBS documentaries in his North Carolina home about two years ago, said his mother, Christina Knestick. One detailed the Pearl Harbor attack and shared Stratton's story.
"When Donald came on the screen, he was mesmerized," Knestick said. "He wanted to meet him, and that became his unusual Christmas wish."
"He was my hero," Landon said.
In California, Nash became fascinated with Stratton when he and his mother read a book detailing the sailor's life.
Both boys since have joined Stratton multiple times, including on a trip to Pearl Harbor for the 76th anniversary of the attack. They video chat with him as well and said they look up to the man, who taught them about courage and a willingness to fight even when it's difficult.
The friendship flows both ways. Stratton's face lights up with a smile when Nash and Landon are near.
"It's beautiful," Knestick said. "Any moment that Donald can hug (Landon), hold him, have him on his knee or caress his face, is beautiful."
Nash said he wants to join the Army, and Landon said he wants to work for the National Park Service.
Both will find ways to apply the lessons they've learned from Stratton, Knestrick said. His legacy will live on through the younger generations, she said.
Stratton sat stoically through Friday's ceremony, his USS Arizona hat resting on his knee, as scores of people praised him.
His wife of 68 years, Velma, sat by his side. They were joined by their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as well as family friends.
Quick to share the spotlight, Stratton thanked the other men and women of the armed forces and said he hopes the bridge's new name might encourage passersby to think of others who have sacrificed for their country.
One of those servicemen, Naval Petty Officer 3rd Class Aldo Palma, was at the dedication.
Palma said Stratton's actions push him and other military men and women to remember those who fought and died before them.
"He is a piece of history, somebody who gave so much," Palma said. "I hope we can have the courage to do what he did."
Colorado Department of Transportation officials were erecting signs Friday announcing the newly minted Donald G. Stratton Bridge.