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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, February 10, 2005

Pearl survivor's story inspires figure

By Karen Blakeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

Pearl Harbor survivor Donald Stratton, 82, is many things to many people.

Donald Stratton, now 82, will be at the Pearl Harbor Memorial visitor's center to sign packages of the action figure created in his likeness. Collectors and other World War II history buffs have purchased the 12-inch-tall figure, a descendant of the G.I. Joe.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

To the U.S. Navy and a grateful nation, he is a war hero. He is 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 barbecue pit that was their ship to the relative safety of the neighboring USS Vestal, which was singed and sinking, but not aflame.

To his family, he is a husband of 55 years; a father, grandfather and great-grandfather; a man who enlisted for a second stint in World War II after recuperating from his burns, and who later, as a civilian, supported his family by helping to set deep-sea oil rigs and lay undersea pipelines.

To thousands of collectors who visit the USS Arizona, Donald Stratton, Pearl Harbor survivor, is an action figure.

"Not a doll," said Daniel Martinez, the park historian who designed the "Americans of Valor, Battleship Row Crewman" figure that bears Stratton's name for the Arizona Memorial Museum Association.

The action figure is a descendant of the G.I. Joe — the doll so many boys from baby boomers onward owned and dragged from mud holes to Barbie dream houses — but to a collector, it is not a toy, Martinez said. It is a scale model of a hero.

Donald Stratton yesterday told Lunalilo Elementary School students how he manned a battle station on the USS Arizona until a bomb struck an ammunition magazine, shaking the ship "like a rag doll."

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

The figure is about 12 inches tall. It has reddish-brown hair — plastic — but styled so that it sweeps back from his forehead the way Stratton and so many others wore it in the 1940s. It is dressed in World War II-era Navy dungarees and life jacket. A doughboy-style helmet is included, and in one hand the figure hefts a scale replica of the ship's 5-inch anti-aircraft round.

In the box behind the figure, printed grainy and ghost-like on a back panel, the superstructure of the Arizona rises.

Stratton, a man who lives up to the expectations of an action hero, said children and their parents, war veterans and history buffs queue up and seem excited when they ask him to sign the box.

"I don't think people do much with them," he said. "I think they just set them on a shelf to keep as souvenirs."

A California resident and one of a dwindling number of USS Arizona survivors alive today, Stratton will be signing action figure boxes and other memorabilia on the mornings of Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday at the museum. He was at Lunalilo Elementary School yesterday, describing his World War II experiences to Katie Yamada's fifth-graders.

The museum association sponsored his trip to Honolulu.

"This is something you'll remember for the rest of your lives," Martinez told the children as he introduced Stratton.

The children sat silently on the library floor, listening closely. Stratton's story is spelled out on the side of the action figure box, on the opposite side from the general history of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack, but hearing Stratton tell it in his strong, clear voice held their attention like no written text could.

He was 19 years old, he said. He'd joined the Navy straight out of high school, a landlubber from Nebraska's dust bowl, looking forward to excitement and a regular paycheck. The Arizona was his first ship, and he first saw her in dry dock on the West Coast, where he helped sand and paint her hull. He watched her crew perform live fire drills in the Pacific, and got to see the destructive power of the ship's big guns first hand.

"From 25 miles, you could hit a target the size of a five-room house," he said.

Then the battleship sailed into Pearl Harbor, and for a while, life became routine.

Sunday morning, Dec. 7, started that way. He had eaten breakfast and was going to visit a friend in sick bay, carrying a couple of oranges as gifts. Stratton said he doesn't know what happened to the oranges. They were lost somewhere in the events that unfolded as he stepped onto the deck.

"Sailors were yelling and hollering and pointing toward Ford Island," Stratton said.

It felt weird, he said, when he first saw the Japanese aircraft amid the smoke — the United States was not at war — but with bombs and torpedoes descending and the planes angling down to strafe the big ships, Stratton knew this was not a drill. He was port-side gun director at the time, and he ran to his battle station on one of the upper decks. He and eight other sailors would do their jobs, keeping the big guns pointed at their targets, all of them operating within a rotating, 12-by-12 cube. They remained intent upon their business until the bomb hit, piercing the Arizona's forward ammunition magazine.

"It hit a million or so pounds of ammunition," Stratton said. "The ship shook like a rag doll."

The explosion, which removed more than 100 feet of the bow, was horrendous. Stratton saw one of the big guns fly into the air, then fall back.

Below him, he said, his crew mates were fighting for their lives and losing. Only a few hundred would survive; 1,177 would die in the flames and engulfing sea. Most of them are still there.

On their upper deck, Stratton and his fellow sailors were in big trouble.

"We were fried," Stratton said in a private interview. "Being burned alive."

Six of them made it out of Stratton's work station, he said, but they found themselves trapped. The Arizona was ablaze around them, and the very ocean was on fire.

Only the Vestal, moored alongside, was not awash in flames. But its deck was 60 feet away from where the men stood.

"And then a sailor — I later learned his name was George — threw us a line," Stratton said.

He said the trip across was long — each man taking it one grasp of rope at a time, the heat rising from the decks, cooking them even more. The rope bowed in the center, creating an uphill climb for the last half of the journey.

Stratton was burned over 60 percent of his body. He hadn't been dressed in the dungarees and long-sleeved shirt that clothe the action figure he now signs. Like most of the sailors who worked above decks, he was dressed in a white t-shirt and shorts. The scars from the burns still mark his legs from the hems of his shorts to his socks.

Before grabbing the rope to the Vestal, Stratton said, he stopped to shuck the dead skin from his arms, leaving it behind like discarded gloves.

He was among the many hundreds who swamped the military hospital at Pearl Harbor, where nurses performed triage by marking their patients on their foreheads — or nearest unburned portion of skin — with lipstick.

For weeks he lay naked and uncovered. Light bulbs burned above him for warmth, and periodically, the medical staff carried him on a sheet and placed him into a soothing salt bath.

Eventually he was transferred to a hospital in Mare Island, Calif., after he proved that he was strong enough to make the trip by standing long enough to allow the medics to change his sheets. The effort exhausted him, and he slept for days afterward.

His convalescence took more than a year. The last of many skin grafts he has undergone was in 1991.

Stratton was medically discharged in 1942, but rejoined the Navy a year later, proving his ability to serve by going through boot camp again. He fought in a number of campaigns throughout the Pacific before being discharged in December 1945.

"Interesting life, huh?" Stratton said this week, after detailing a few more hair-raising escapes he had as an able-bodied seaman working with oil rigs and as a dive tender and crane operator, laying pipe on the ocean floor.

"If I had my druthers," he admitted one evening, "I'd rather not have been aboard the Arizona. But everybody has to be somewhere, and somebody had to be there."

He said he was happy that he — and the action figure — can stand up for the sailors who served alongside him; can keep them alive in the thoughts of future generations.

"I'm proud of my shipmates," he said. "I'm proud of our flag and I'm proud of the troops who are overseas now."

Reach Karen Blakeman at 535-2430 or kblakeman@honoluluadvertiser.com.