A Link To The Past
Dec. 8, 2005
Editor's Note: Much of the information for this story was taken from the Pearl Harbor memorial website (pearlharbormemorial.com) and the National Parks Conservation Association website: www.npca.org. This story is dedicated to the memory of those that survived, and those who gave their lives, Dec. 7, 1941.
By Jason Krump
USS Arizona survivor Donald Stratton has a simple message.
"I want to keep the Arizona in the history books so young people do not take it for granted. I want it to be brought up in history classes. I do not want people to forget."
A representation of those young people - the Washington State women's basketball team - recently visited Pearl Harbor and the Arizona Memorial. One member of the team, who was making her first visit to the site, needed no reminder of the significance of Pearl Harbor.
Because Donald Stratton is her grandfather.
When Nikki Stratton, a redshirt sophomore guard with the Cougars, stepped on to the USS Arizona Memorial, Monday, Nov. 28, she was visiting the site of her grandfather's survival from the ship nearly 64 years to the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Donald Stratton was one of six badly burned sailors from the USS Arizona who made their way -- 60 feet, hand-over-hand along a thick, hemp rope -- from the Arizona to the relative safety of the neighboring USS Vestal.
Now a resident of California, Donald Stratton is one of the dwindling number of USS Arizona survivors alive today.
His granddaughter's visit to the memorial surely would have occurred at some point, but this specific visit was due to happenstance, as the team was in Hawaii to play in a basketball tournament over Thanksgiving weekend.
Stratton joined her father Randy (Donald's son) and her mother Kathy (who was also making her first visit), the team and coaching staff for the visit. Stratton's sister Jessika, then a player with Baylor University, was able to visit Pearl Harbor several years earlier with her grandparents.
"There are no words to describe the experience," Nikki Stratton said. "There were so many emotions running around my head at once. Being on my grandpa's ship, knowing the story behind what he had to go through at such a young age, and being forced to make amazing choices of trying to climb all that way just to survive. It is amazing to me. I was really glad I was able to see it with my family."
Because of the connection between the Strattons and Pearl Harbor, the team was treated to a presentation from Daniel Martinez, National Park Service historian for the USS Arizona Memorial, in addition to viewing the 23-minute documentary film on the Pearl Harbor attack and the Navy shuttle boat trip to and from the USS Arizona Memorial.
One of the many aspects of Martinez's talk with the team was that he stressed the average age of the Arizona crew was lower than the average age of the team.
"I am a year older than my grandfather was at the time," Nikki Stratton said. "Even now, I can't imagine making the decisions that he had to make facing such a life-changing event and life tragedy. I'm not sure if I could have done the same thing he did."
Furthermore, Martinez pointed out that 64 years after the attack oil from the USS Arizona still comes to the surface, as the players witnessed on their visit.
"He really explained the memorial as still living," guard Katie Appleton said of Martinez's talk. "It gave us an opportunity to respect and never forget about what happened."
Martinez has written, "We live in a fortunate age. Imagine if we could hear the recordings of those who served with Washington at Valley Forge, or listen to soldiers who stood at the stone wall along Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg. How lucky we are to have the voices of Pearl Harbor preserved forever. They will always be here to reach out to us. All we have to do is listen."
The USS Arizona is the final resting place for many of the ship's 1,177 crewmen who lost their lives, Dec. 7, 1941 in Pearl Harbor. The attack claimed 2,390 lives, with nearly half of these casualties from the battleship Arizona. The 184-foot-long Memorial structure spanning the mid-portion of the sunken battleship consists of three main sections: the entry and assembly rooms; a central area designed for ceremonies and general observation; and the shrine room, where the names of those killed on the Arizona are engraved on the marble wall.
Arizona was the most heavily damaged of all the vessels in Battleship Row, suffering three near-misses and four direct-hits from 800-kilogram bombs dropped by high-altitude Kates. The last bomb to strike her penetrated her deck starboard of turret two and detonated within a 14-inch powder magazine. The resulting massive explosion broke the ship in two forward of turret one, collapsed her forecastle decks, and created such a cavity that her forward turrets and conning tower fell thirty feet into her hull.
Much of the above information on Pearl Harbor is found in the history books. Reading about it is one thing. Witnessing it first hand is another matter.
"The team said you could take every history class that could be taken, and within the hour or two that we were there, they learned more in that time than they ever did in history class," WSU Head Coach Sherri Murrell said.
"It's totally different than reading about it in the history books," senior guard Crystal Blue said. "It was much closer to me because of Nikki's grandfather. After seeing the actual footage it was amazing that anyone survived that bombing or impact."
On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Donald Stratton was finishing breakfast on the USS Arizona. Spying loose oranges on the table, Stratton quickly scooped them into his white hat to take to a friend in sick bay. But as he walked on to the forecastle, he saw men yelling and pointing toward Ford Island, the Naval Air Station at the harbor's center. There, Japanese bombs were falling like rain.
Spilling the oranges, Stratton quickly manned an anti-aircraft station. Then, without warning, the Arizona took a bomb near its No. 2 gun turret, detonating a massive explosion of the ammunition and gasoline stored in the ship's hull. Stratton and a few others shimmied down a line to the Vestal, a repair ship tied to the Arizona. Although burned over 60 percent of his body, Stratton had escaped the dying ship.
In addition to offering a living account of what happened on the Arizona that day, Donald Stratton is immortalized as an action figure that is sold at the Pearl Harbor Memorial gift shop.
Calling it "quite an honor," of having a figure made of his likeness, Donald Stratton made sure that his family received the figures before the public did.
"We got them before it hit the stores," Nikki Stratton said of the action figure. "He signed it for me. It was really cool when I actually saw them on sale and people buying them."
Apparently, people are buying them at such a rate that Donald Stratton said more figures are being ordered.
But for Nikki Stratton, Murrell, and the team, more than an action figure was taken away from the team's visit to Pearl Harbor.
"I hope they have a better understanding of what times were like back then," Nikki Stratton said of what she hopes the team took out of the visit. "They got to see where the vessel was parked, where my grandfather had to go from point A to point B, and how far it was just to do that. I just hope they have a better understanding of what happened that day and how many lives were lost."
"As a coach, I want to try to make sure that we educate our kids in places that we go to that are historic," said Murrell, who was making her second trip to the memorial. "Being a student-athlete is not just what you see on the floor. It is also gaining an educational experience out of an athletic avenue. That's been something I think is important for them, as well as for us as coaches, to make sure that we have that responsibility."
And the lesson from Pearl Harbor?
"Keep America alert so this does not happen again," Donald Stratton said. "It was a miracle that I got off; so many didn't. They are the heroes and they are still there."
By Jason Krump
Official Website of Washington State University Athletics | Bohler Athletic Complex | PO Box 641602 Pullman, WA 99164-1602 | 1.800.GO.COUGS