Donald was born July 14, 1922 in Invale Nebraska and grew up in Red Cloud, Nebraska.
At 19 years old he enlisted in the US Navy and was then assigned to the USS Arizona. He met up with the Arizona while it was in dry dock in Bremerton Washington. Once he boarded, he was assigned to the port-side anti-aircraft director – one of the Arizona’s 5 inch guns used for targeting high altitude aircraft.
Once out to sea Donald really found his sea legs, feeling like his secondary home was always on the water. The Arizona motored through the Pacific to the sandy beaches of Honolulu Hawaii and Pearl Harbor – not bad for a flatlander from Nebraska. The crew enjoyed their time in Hawaii, playing football on the beach, shore leave, and all the hospitality of the island had to offer.
However, on the morning of December 7th all that changed. Just past dawn the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor creating an inferno of fire, and strafing ships with machine guns. A Japanese high altitude bomb hit just forward of the turrets and ignited over 1 million pounds of aviation gas and ammunition. The fireball that engulfed the Arizona lifted the ship over 50 feet out of the water before slamming back down to the sand below.
The fire burned at its highest level at around 8000 degrees, which is about 3 times hotter than lava coming out of the Kilauea volcano. It burned Donald over 65% of his body. Along with 5 others in the director, there was no hope for rescue. The Arizona was on fire and the Japanese were still attacking.
This image is an artists recreation of the burns Donald suffered during Pearl Harbor. At one point in his life, he had no fingerprints as they had all been burned through and off. He went through multiple surgeries to replace as much of the skin on his legs and hands as was possible.
While on the Arizona the Tradewinds began to blow some of the smoke away, and the sailors got the attention of a sailor on the USS Vestal, named Joe George. Joe was on deck fighting fires spread from the Arizona. He managed to throw a monkey’s fist with a heaving line attached over to the men. They pulled a heavier line over and one by one began to climb across the gap separating the two ships.
Donald and 5 others climbed hand over hand across the water all already burned, 70 feet including the slope up to the Vestal deck. Joe George saved 6 lives that day, and was never awarded for his heroism until 76 years later.
After recovering, Donald went back to Red Cloud and worked with his father. But, something was missing, he wanted to return to WWII. He wanted to avenge all of his brothers’ lost on December 7th, 1,177 of them. Donald reenlisted in the Navy, went through boot camp a second time, and was stationed on the USS Stack for the remainder of the war.
After leaving the Navy, Donald met Velma in Red Cloud and the two married. They had four children, two of which passed before they were just 5 days old, and 2 boys – Robert and Randy. Donald and Velma were married for 70 years.
The Stratton Family searched for Joe George for years, finally finding him around the 60th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor. We found his family living in Arkansas, but Joe passed in the early 90’s. The family also learned he was never honored for his bravery on December 7th.
16 years later, and many many many conversations with Navy Command, the Stratton’s were able to secure a medal – the Bronze Star with Valor – to Joe George. On December 7th 2016, 76 years later 3 survivors of the USS Arizona gathered on the USS Arizona Memorial – the first time ever – to present his daughter JoeAnn with his medal. It would be the last time Donald set foot on the Memorial. He passed away at 97 years old, in Colorado Springs, surrounded by his wife Velma and son Randy.
The funeral procession for Donald was something for the history books, rivaling and surpassing that of any past Presidents. The Secretary of the Navy spoke, as well as Senator of Colorado Cory Gardner. The procession reached 3 miles long at one point as many bikers joined the trip back to Red Cloud. Donald was buried next to his two daughters and now wife. Velma passed away exactly three months to day Donald was buried as she couldn’t be separated from her life’s long love.
Donald’s life was chronicled in the book All the Gallant Men which can be found online and your local book stores.