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Gardner Honors Donald Stratton’s Incredible Life

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) celebrated Donald Stratton’s incredible life today in a speech on the Senate floor and in a resolution he introduced with U.S. Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO), which the Senate passed today unanimously. Donald Stratton was a Colorado Springs resident and one of the last living survivors of the USS Arizona Pearl Harbor attack. He passed away on February 15 at the age of 97.

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NOTE: Click here or the picture above to download Senator Gardner’s remarks.

“Our country has suffered a great loss this past week with the passing of Mr. Stratton,” said Senator Gardner. “He was the type of person who only comes around once in a generation and someone who I was lucky to have gotten to know and certainly proud to have worked with. As we say goodbye to this hero, let us all do it with thanks for Donald Stratton and for the two remaining survivors of the USS Arizona today, Lou Conter and Ken Potts, and for every brave man and woman who serves our country. We are eternally grateful. And I’m going to miss him.”

Senator Gardner worked with Donald Stratton and the U.S. Navy to award the Bronze Star Medal posthumously to Joseph George for saving six sailors stationed on the USS Arizona during the Pearl Harbor attack.

Gardner and Bennet’s resolution honoring Donald Stratton that was approved unanimously by the Senate can be found here.

Senator Gardner’s remarks as delivered:

Mr. President,

I come to the floor today with somber news for Colorado and our country about a gentleman that I’ve talked about many times on this floor and across Colorado: Donald Stratton, a veteran of World War II, who was on the USS Arizona, December 7, 1941. Our country has suffered a great loss this past week with the passing of Mr. Stratton.

A gallant man, Donald Stratton, served his country, his family, and our great state with honor, pride, and courage. He was the type of person who only comes around once in a generation and someone who I was lucky to have gotten to know and certainly proud to have worked with. And it is with great emotion that I come to the floor today to share his story once again. I’m sure it won’t be the last time, but it is certainly the most personal time that I have ever shared his story.  

Donald Stratton was born in a tiny town in Nebraska, Red Cloud, Nebraska, 1922. Today it’s a population of 900 or so people. I didn’t have a chance to look up to see how big it was when he was born in 1922, I imagine it may have been a little bigger. It certainly has faced the fate that many rural communities in America have, seen times of growth, times of loss. But certainly the people of Red Cloud know that they have lost a great hero as well.  

Donald Stratton wrote in his memoirs on December 6, 1941, he wrote down as a young Nebraska sailor that “he felt like the luckiest boy from Red Cloud.” The luckiest boy from Red Cloud, December 6, 1941, because he was in an incredibly beautiful part of the world. In fact he wrote in his memoir, he “was in the Navy, seeing the world, stationed in one of the most beautiful parts of the world.” He was 19 and “his entire life stretched before him.”  

That next morning, December 7, 1941, would change forever Donald Stratton and his country. In his book, he talked about that day, December 7, 1941, a little after 5:00 a.m. that he had awoken on his cot about an hour and a half before sunrise, and I quote, “I stretched, rubbed the sleep from my eyes and folded up my cot. I stored it in the incinerator room, then went below to shower. Afterward I dressed for the day in the typical casual clothes that sailors wore on Sundays – a clean pair of pressed white shorts and a white T-shirt, along with my sailor’s hat. A few minutes later at 5:30, reveille sounded over the intercom and the ship stirred to life. Belowdecks, men tumbled out of their hammocks and headed to the showers.”

A few hours later, at 7:55 that morning after a Sunday morning breakfast, he heard airplanes and bombs in the distance and the attacks on Pearl Harbor began. By 8:06, 11 minutes later, two-thirds of his body would be engulfed in flames. He was at his station directing anti-aircraft guns, trying his best to fight off the Japanese surprise attack, and at that moment, a 1,700-pound armor-piercing bomb was dropped from 10,000 feet above the USS Arizona. 

That bomb came crashing down through four steel decks, where it reached the ammunition magazine, causing a series of explosions and shot a fireball five to six hundred feet in the air, engulfing Donald Stratton and his shipmates in even more flames. That Sunday morning, December 7, aboard the USS Arizona, were 1,512 officers, sailors, and marines. The attack that day, that 1,700-pound bomb and so many others killed 1,177 of them. Only 335 brave people survived that morning, and Donald Stratton was one of those 335 sailors. 

But his story of survival happened because of a sailor that was stationed next to the USS Arizona on a ship called the Vestal, a sailor by the name of Joe George. What happened that morning was as they were trying to fight back, they had been trapped in their tower. Donald Stratton and five of his other shipmates were burning and trapped on that tower as the ship was going down, and Joe George, a sailor aboard the Vestal, saw them, saw what was happening, and tried many times to throw a rope over to the USS Arizona to provide help, and finally he succeeded. And out of the smoke and out of the flames, a lifeline from Joe George to that tower was seen, and they were able to affix it to the tower. And miraculously, Donald Stratton and these other sailors were able to shimmy across the rope to safety on the Vestal. Over the burning oil and the water, despite their terrible wounds, they made it to the Vestal.

But that story led to an incredible fight again from Donald Stratton, because he spent a year recovering from the burns that were over almost all of his body, but he told his parents that he couldn’t just abandon the fight, he couldn’t abandon his country. He needed to go back into duty. And so with that, he went back into service to his country, but the fight Donald Stratton gave to this country and for his fellow sailors didn’t stop there because after he served in the Navy, after he left, then he knew he had to spend the rest of his life fighting for the man who saved his life and his fellow shipmates.

But it wasn’t like people left the ship at the end of the day on December 7 to go back to the office and fill out reports and say well, it was a busy day at the office, these things happened. America was at war. Thousands of lives had been lost. And in the fire and the smoke and the fight, what Joe George had done for Donald Stratton and those other brave sailors was lost for that time.

But Donald Stratton came back into service, he came back into the fight, and he spent the rest of his life trying to find the man who saved his life. He spent a decade-plus looking for Joe George to find out who it was, and after he found out who it was, he spent 16 years fighting the Navy so that Joe George could be recognized for his heroic actions.

Donald Stratton went to the Arizona legislature, he went to the Colorado legislature, they passed resolutions asking that Joe George be recognized for his acts of bravery, his courage. And he came to this Congress, Lauren Bruner, Donald Stratton, and the other members who survived the Arizona, the remaining few of the Arizona, came to the Senate and said please help us make sure, as fewer and fewer of us are able to celebrate and to commemorate December 7 each and every year, could you please celebrate one more life, Joe George. And on December 7, 2017, the Navy recognized Joe George with the Bronze Star and the V for valor device.

I have a picture of Donald Stratton saying goodbye one more time to his fellow shipmates on December 7, 2017, thanking Joe George for saving his life and probably never fully understanding why his mission didn’t end that day and so many others did, but thanking God that he was able to continue the fight for this country.

So while Donald Stratton was on the brink of death, he knew he had to get back into the fight, and he did. He went back into the Pacific theater. He wrote in his book that, “Though I may have left Pearl Harbor on a stretcher, I had returned on a destroyer. I had recovered my strength, as had my country. I was ready to meet what was coming and I had a boatload of reinforcements with me.” And Donald Stratton came back fighting for our country and fighting for the man who saved his life. 

He wrote in his memoir that in life the only question that matters is quote, “Have I lived a good life?” He says, “You wonder if you will be remembered when you are gone, wonder who will remember you and why.” And please know that we will remember you eternally and your family for what you have done for this country.

Mr. President, I have introduced a resolution to recognize and remember Donald Stratton’s life because there are only a few, a few remaining brave men and women who survived that day, who survived that war, who fought for us so many years ago. And I hope that all my colleagues will support it, so this American hero and his incredible life can be remembered by our nation forever.

The first time I met Donald Stratton, he told me his story. He told me what he had done. He told me how he and his wife had met. How he went back into the fight after receiving such severe burns that his wife used to take a bristle brush to help his skin feel better. I asked how he did it and said, “Mr. Stratton, I’m pretty sure I never could have done what you did.” And his kind of aw-shucks demeanor from Red Cloud, Nebraska, was “Well Cory, everyone has to be somewhere.”

That’s not the response I thought I was going to get. But everybody does have to be somewhere. Thank God Donald Stratton was on that boat December 7, 1941. Thank God Joe George was on that boat, December 7, 1941. Thank God that rope was thrown over to the tower to save his life. And thank God that Donald Stratton returned into the fight to stand up for this country, to continue his fight for Joe George, and to have an incredible family that continues to share in his legacy today. 

Thank God for all of them, and thank God for all the men and women who were there that day and what they have been able to do to fight for this country, to stand for this country, to pay back the blessings of this country, as we must fight each and every day to pay back the blessings that they have so generously bestowed upon this nation when they stood up because they were there.

We know that Donald Stratton has joined his fallen shipmates and that reveille at the pearly gates must be quite spectacular. He passed away on February 15, at the age of 97, at his home next to his beloved wife in Colorado Springs. He joins Lauren Bruner, another survivor of that morning and the Arizona who came to my office to fight with him for Joe George, a shipmate who passed away on September 10 of this year and was interred in the USS Arizona this past December 7, on the 78th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.

I pray that they all rest in peace as they join their family in arms. And this Saturday, the community of Colorado Springs and our state will hold a memorial service for Donald Stratton before he is laid to his final resting place next to his daughters in Nebraska.  

We are eternally grateful. And I’m going to miss him.

I yield the floor.

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Cory Gardner is a member of the U.S. Senate serving Colorado. He sits on the Energy & Natural Resources Committee, the Foreign Relations Committee, the Commerce, Science, & Transportation Committee, and is the Chairman of the Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy.

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