KUSA - Some dates are seared into people’s memories – and some bear the scars of those dates.
“December 7, 1941,” said Donald Stratton, who survived the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
In his Colorado Springs home sits a model of the ship Stratton once called home – the USS Arizona. That ship now sits at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.
“The explosion was clear back to here, blew all this off,” Stratton said, as he pointed at the model.
Stratton is a Nebraska native and grew up about as far from the ocean as you can get, but the Navy held a special fascination for him.
“Had never been to sea or seen a ship or battleship before that,” Stratton said.
He was assigned to the USS Arizona, during a time of peace, until that ill-fated December day in 1941.
“I went back to my locker, which was towards the bow of the ship, heard some sailors yelling and hollering and pointing and I went out to have a look and I’ve seen them dropping bombs on Ford Island,” Stratton said.
Japanese airplanes were bombing the islands and ships within Pearl Harbor. Stratton headed to his battle station, one deck above the bridge. Then, the ship took a hit.
“It blew 110 foot of the ship clear off and the fireball went up in the air, about 500 or 800 feet in the air – just engulfed us,” Stratton said.
He was on fire, as were other sailors.
“Just a ball of fire we were inside. There was just no way to escape from it,” Stratton said. “We were just burning alive and finally, actually the embers of the fire finally died down and the sea breeze took the smoke away a little bit. We got out on the platform and no way to escape all the metal that was just read hot.”
Stratton and several of his fellow sailors waved down to a smaller repair ship called the Vestal, which was next to the Arizona.
“We had no way to get off the platform,” he said. “We got the attention of a seaman onboard the Vestal and he threw us the heaving line, a real small thread, about 9 thread or so.”
It was a literal lifeline.
“He threw it across and tied the heavier line on it and we pulled it across to the Arizona, tied it off at the handrail and proceeded to go across the line to the Vestal,” Stratton said.
The mystery seaman on the Vestal was a man names Joe George. Joe Ann Taylor is one of his daughters, who lives in Arkansas.
“We all knew he had been to Pearl Harbor, but he never told us anything about whatever happened, including my mother,” Taylor said.
Part of the story, though, goes like this: in saving the lives of Stratton and five other men, Joe broke the rules.
He disobeyed a direct order from his commanding officer, who had ordered Joe to cut the line, because their ship was under fire and needed to get out of the harbor.
“My father, he was a rebellious sort,” Taylor said. “He did rebellious things.”
Stratton said, it made a difference for him and others.
“Regardless, he risked his life to save six other lives,” he said.
For the past 11 years, Stratton and his family have bene trying to get the Navy to recognize Joe for the six lives he saved that day.
“We’re not shooting for the moon. We just want him to be – he was recognized for what he did that day,” Donald’s son, Randy, said. “This guy, he put his life on the line, they were shooting at the guys. If they would’ve cut the lines, they would’ve perished. I mean, he didn’t have to do that, but he did. And that’s what we want him to be recognized for.”
Joe passed away several years ago, but his daughter Joe Ann said he never doubted his decision that day.
“Never had any regrets about that,” she said. “I know he said he would do it all over again and my dad had no regrets about doing that. He just didn’t. And, in some ways, he felt a little angry and upset – and he thinks that commander was totally wrong.”
Now, nearly 75 years later, as the nation prepares to remember all those who died and survived Pearl Harbor, Donald Stratton prepares to remember the man who saved him and all those who weren’t as lucky.
“We lost so many men, you can’t even imagine what it was like. But I think about it every day. Why the good Lord spared me, I don’t know,” he said. “It’ll be 75 years and -- I’ll be aboard the ship with my shipmates and pay them a little homage and thank the Lord that I made it.”
Because of the loss of military records and because there are no longer any commanding officers who were eyewitnesses to Stratton’s account, the Navy said there is little they can do now for Joe George. The Stratton family, though, said they are still trying to get him honored and continue lobbying members of Congress for help.
Donald Stratton will be part of a 9News Special on the 75th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor, which we will be airing in December. 9News reporter Gary Shapiro will be in Hawaii for the Memorial Ceremonies and will share the unique perspective of Colorado survivors.
Reporter’s note: We would like to thank our sister station in Little Rock, KTHV-TV and reporter Elle Mohs for their work with us on this story.