"I just thank the good Lord I survived," Donald Stratton, 92, tells PEOPLE of Dec. 7, 1941

By Johnny Dodd
Updated December 07, 2014 12:00 PM
Credit: Courtesy Donald Stratton

Donald Stratton still can’t shake the memory of it all – the deafening explosions, searing heat, machine gun blasts and heart-wrenching screams of his friends – from his head.

“Never a day goes by for all these many years when I haven’t thought about it,” Stratton, one of nine still-living Pearl Harbor survivors, tells PEOPLE. “I don’t talk about it too much, but when December rolls around I do. It’s important the American people don’t forget.”

Now 92, Stratton managed to survive the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, an event that destroyed much of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and catapulted the nation into World War II. This past week, Stratton gathered at the naval station near Honolulu with his few remaining comrades to remember and pay homage to the more than 2,500 soldiers who died that day.

“Every time I think back on it,” he says, “I just thank the good Lord that I survived and I say a little prayer for the sailors and Marines who didn’t make it.”

The Beginning

On the morning it happened, Stratton had just left the “chow hall” on the battleship Arizona when he heard a commotion up on the deck. It was a few minutes after 8 a.m. A group of fellow sailors were shouting, pointing out over the water at a cluster of planes.

“I watched one of them bank and saw the rising sun symbol under the wings and thought, ‘Boy, that’s the Japanese, and they’re bombing us,’ ” he says.

Within seconds, the 19-year-old Nebraskan scrambled 60 feet up a series of ladders and joined a group of other sailors manning a five-inch, 25-caliber anti-aircraft gun.

“We were just firing away at all those planes,” he recalls. “They were coming in so close I could see the pilots when they went by. Some were waving and some were grinning.”

Their Ship Is Hit

In the harbor around him, ships were ablaze and black smoke blanketed the sky as Japanese bombers circled high overhead. Suddenly, the ship was rocked by a bomb blast so powerful it lifted the 32,000-ton battleship six feet out of the water.

“A 600-foot fireball just engulfed us, burning all of us real bad,” says Stratton, whose flesh literally slid off his arms. “After that it was all about self-preservation, buddy. We weren’t thinking about anything but getting the hell off of there.”

Fire raged all around him as a sailor from another ship managed to toss a rope to the trapped men that they secured and stretched between the two vessels. One after another, Stratton and five other men muscled their way, hand over hand, across 100 feet of rope as the fuel-coated water beneath them burned.

“My hands were burned so badly I don’t have any fingerprints,” Stratton says, “so it was pretty painful.”

By the end of the day, 1,177 of his crew mates were dead. He spent the next 10 months in a series of military hospitals, recovering from the burns that covered almost 70 percent of his body. A year after his medical discharge from the Navy, Stratton, who was still recuperating at home, marched back into a military recruiting office to announce that he wanted back in the war.

“People were saying, ‘What the hell did you do that for? Didn’t you get enough?’ ” Stratton says. “But I wanted to go back out to sea. Besides, there wasn’t much to do in Nebraska.”

Before long, he was a gunner’s mate on the destroyer USS Stack, participating in the invasions of New Guinea, the Philippines and Okinawa.

Life Since the War

Over seven decades have passed since the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Stratton still carries the scars – both physical and psychological – from that nightmarish morning. “Any sharp noise like a phone ringing causes me to jump three feet in the air,” he says.

But what truly disturbs and saddens Stratton is the way the “date which will live in infamy,” as President Franklin D. Roosevelt described it in his speech to Congress the next day, is slowly being forgotten.

“They don’t even teach about it in many schools anymore,” he laments. “But anyone who doesn’t think it’s important should have been there with me that morning at the end of one of those guns, shooting at the enemy. I think that would change anybody’s mind.”

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