As a teenage sailor, Donald Stratton survived burns over two-thirds of his body when the USS Arizona exploded amid the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Colorado Springs resident, revered locally for his wartime service, spent the rest of his life encouraging others to remember the 1,177 of his shipmates from the battlewagon who died that day. He died at home Saturday at 97. Stratton had been in failing health since contracting pneumonia in October.
"He was a very humble, very quiet hero," his son Randy Stratton said Sunday. "He didn't want or seek the attention he received."
Stratton's death leaves just two sailors remaining from Arizona's crew: Lou Conter and Ken Potts.
Stratton, who had lived in Colorado Springs for 13 years, will have a permanent place in the Pikes Peak region's pantheon of heroes. The Fillmore Street Bridge over Interstate 25 was named in his honor and a piece of his battleship's wreckage remains on display at the Colorado Springs airport after Stratton helped local leaders obtain it.
"Veterans like Donald Stratton are the best this country has to offer and I thank God every day for Americans like them," Colorado Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner said in an email. "May God bless this hero, his family, and all who have and continue to serve our country.”
Stratton always expressed reluctance to share his memories of Pearl Harbor.
“It was a terrible day that day,” the then 93-year-old told the Gazette in 2015.
The hulk of the mighty ship now rests in Pearl Harbor as a memorial to the nearly 2,500 Americans killed on Dec. 7, 1941.
That any sailors survived the attack on the Arizona is a miracle, Stratton said.
“A million pounds of ammunition exploded,” he said. “The fireball went 600 or 800 feet in the air and just engulfed us.”
Sailors on the USS Vestal, a repair vessel moored next to Arizona saved Stratton’s life by throwing a rope to his gun mount. Hand-over-hand, he and five other sailors made it off the sinking ship over that rope.
Below them was oil flame and red-hot metal from the burning ship.
“I don’t have any fingerprints — that’s how bad my hands were burned,” he said.
Stratton was forever grateful to Joe George a Vestal sailor who heaved the rope that saved his life. Stratton's efforts to remember George resulted in his being awarded a posthumous Bronze Star Medal in 2017.
After his escape from the Arizona, Stratton faced months of recovery from his burns. In September 1942, he was discharged as a disabled veteran.
But Stratton fought Navy bureaucracy to return to uniform, and repeated basic training to return to the Pacific fleet.
Stratton told The Gazette his determination to return to duty wasn’t something he thought about much.
“It was just one of those things,” he said.
By 1943, Stratton was sailing again aboard the destroyer USS Stack. He watched the Navy avenge Pearl Harbor with landings across the Pacific in New Guinea, the Philippines, and Okinawa.
Stratton says his war service was nothing special.
“It’s just something you do,” he said.
After the war, Stratton worked with dive teams on oil pipelines from the Persian Gulf to Alaska.
But, even as work took him across the globe, Stratton found time to be a devoted father.
"He didn't miss anything for us kids," Randy Stratton said.
Stratton, though, seldom talked about his time in the Navy, Randy Stratton said.
"The first time I saw my dad cry was the 25th anniversary," Randy Stratton said, recalling a visit to the USS Arizona memorial over the remains of the ship in Pearl Harbor.
In the twilight of his life, though, Stratton shared memories for a book that serves as a memorial to his Arizona shipmates. "All the Gallant Men" recalls Stratton's survival and the heroism that was commonplace among sailors during the attack.
Randy Stratton said efforts are underway to have the booked turned into a movie.
Stratton is survived by his wife of nearly 70 years, Velma.
Funeral plans are pending.
But Randy Stratton said his father suggested a way for Pikes Peak region residents to remember him and the other heroes of the Arizona as they drive on I-25 near the Stratton Bridge.
"When you pass underneath give it a salute and remember," Randy Stratton said.