December 7th, 1941. A day that will live in infamy. Fire rained from the sky and the waters ran red and black with blood, grime, and a generous helping of oil, served with a fresh frosting of flames. The U.S. Pacific Fleet was severely damaged. 2,403 were killed, 1,178 were wounded. Of the dead, 1,177 came from a single ship, the USS Arizona. 335 men on the ship survived.
Only five still do.
One of those five USS Arizona survivors is Donald Stratton, U.S. Navy Seaman First Class retired. Now 94, Donald Stratton kept his story of survival and remembrance to himself, until 2016, when he released his memoir, All The Gallant Men.
Of all the generations of American veterans, those that fought in World War II are most revered. Donald Stratton in All The Gallant Men shows us why this is so. If you can imagine being burned to the point your skin was melting off and you had to grab a thin rope hand over hand, to move from one ship to another over boiling, burning, filthy water, you can imagine just one of millions of hardships that generation endured. And unlike World War I, a war fought over trenches and mud, World War II had its undeniably glorious, if gruesome, moments of triumph.
But Donald Stratton, his USS Arizona shipmates, and all the other gallant men of World War II didn’t emerge, fully formed in armor, from a head. This review of warriors who would go on to be all time champions would be incomplete without talking about the atmosphere in which they were raised.
Steel Forged in Fire
Donald Stratton begins All The Gallant Men by talking about his childhood in the Great Depression. As he puts it:
The Depression was the forge that formed us. When the fight came to us, we were ready for it. Like steel coming out of the blast furnaces, shaped into girders, then dipped into vats of oil to temper them. There was a strength you couldn’t see on the surface. Because of it, we were somehow able to bear the weight that a world at war placed on our shoulders.
I didn’t know I had it in me, some of the things the war brought out. I don’t think any of us did – you never know the strength of steel until it is tested.
And tested they were, even in childhood. You’ll read plenty about the terrible poverty of the Depression, made worse by the Dust Bowl, in the opening chapter of All The Gallant Men. You’ll review the hovels people lived in, How Donald Stratton and his entire family (6 people in four small rooms) had to use a single Sears catalogue for toilet paper.
But his parents, and he as a child, worked hard. Eventually, the Navy came to town, and Donald Stratton opted to take the steady salary. So he set out to sea on his assigned ship, the USS Arizona. On the way there, he mentions his journey out of Red Cloud, Nebraska, the only home he’d ever known:
It was a 700 mile bus ride across the farmlands of the central Midwest. Endless fields of corn passed by my window, their stalks standing tall in their fields, neat in their rows, awaiting harvest. Farmhouses interrupted the monotony of the landscape with weathered barns thirsting for paint and concrete-staved silos hungering for corn. The low, rolling hills had an almost hypnotic effect as they swelled and subsided, green with the beginnings of the winter wheat. The broom-swept skies of sunset. The deep purple shadows of dusk. It was all so beautiful.
Hypnotic effect indeed. This passage is what Unlimited Selling Power calls an ideosensory trance. Credit for such strong use of visual verbiage must be given at least in part to All The Gallant Men’s ghostwriter, Ken Gire, but we can imagine ourselves in the place of Donald Stratton, getting lost on those sights crisscrossing the road, on way to the ill-fated USS Arizona, completely unaware of the danger we’d soon find ourselves in.
December 7th, 1941
There were numerous warnings and signs that went totally unheeded, down to the very last hour before the attack, but you probably know that. What you don’t know is that the USS Arizona wasn’t even supposed to be in Pearl Harbor on that day. A chance collision with another ship during a zig-zag drill meant its plans to return to the mainland had to be put on hold.
I’ve remarked before on the importance that seemingly trivial acts of fate can have on military operations. Julius Caesar did too, saying that “in war, important events are often the result of trivial causes.” All The Gallant Men brings it home in a far more personal way for all on the ill-fated USS Arizona, then and now.
The attack on Pearl Harbor came, and that predatory bomb hit the Arizona and barreled through to its magazine, exploding it in a mushroom cloud.
It was at this point that fortune wiled its ways again. Donald Stratton happened to be at a battle station that was relatively insulated from the blast that rocked the USS Arizona. Still, he couldn’t escape the touch of that explosion.
I looked at myself, surveying the damage the blast had inflicted. My T-shirt had caught fire, burning my arms and back. My legs were burned from my ankles to my thighs. My face was seared. The hair on my head had been singed off, and part of my ear was gone.
I looked at my arms. A sheath of skin from each had peeled off and was draping them. I tore off one length of skin and threw it on the floor of the platform. Then the other. The remaining tissue was a webwork of pink and white and red, some of it black, all of it throbbing.
Donald Stratton was severely wounded, in station that was enclosed by the flames eating through the Arizona. The heat was rising fast. He couldn’t throw himself overboard. There seemed no hope for escape. Then he and his shipmates saw another of those gallant men, stationed on another ship, the USS Vestal. His name was Joe George, a sailor known for his prowess in the boxing ring…and getting in trouble. He was the only hope of Donald Stratton and his shipmates. They needed him to get them to the USS Vestal, somehow. He threw a rope after falling short twice.
The rope stretched 70 feet to span the water below us, which was 45 feet down, slicked with fuel that had caught fire. Our only hope was to make it to the USS Vestal, hand over hand across the rope. But the flesh had been burned off all of our hands, and using those raw fingers and palms to get us across the chasm that separated us would be at best excruciating, and most likely impossible.
I looked through the smoke at the Vestal, my burning eyes straining to see. Joe and his captain were engaged in some kind of debate, a heated one, from the looks of it.
The order had been given to cut loose from the Arizona and head for open water. Before Joe sent a line our way, he had been following those instructions, using his ax to cut the mooring lines. When the Vestal’s captain saw the rope that tethered his ship to ours he looked at us. We were a grotesque gathering of hellish creatures. Nearly naked, our bodies were smudges of black, patches of white, slashes of red. Stumbling into each other on the platform. Patting out the flames on our clothes. Peeling skin from our arms. We were the walking dead, and we didn’t have a chance, or so it seemed to the captain.
To make matters worse, the rope, that thin lifeline that Joe George had disobeyed his orders to throw to Donald Stratton and his USS Arizona shipmates, was sagging, making the task of pulling themselves across that flaming cauldron once known as Pearl Harbor far more difficult. But they all made it…not without first being strafed by Japanese Zeros as an added spice of the day, just for the pleasure. Joe George saved their lives, disobeying his orders to do so.
All The Gallant Men then transitions to that chaotic opening of World War II for the United States – the confusion and angst of those Pearl Harbor family members at home still on edge, wondering if their boys were alright. Donald Stratton asks “why them and not me?”
Whatever the answer is, All The Gallant Men then gives you a review of his painstakingly painful recovery, his reentry into the fight despite it all, victory, and how this Survivor of the USS Arizona lived on with the memories of Pearl Harbor and his fallen shipmates constantly burning his mind, searing him long after his physical burns had healed.
Are You a Man or a Pet?
Donald Stratton would be the first to tell you that he’s no hero, but from the standpoint of those who didn’t serve in that most telling of all tests that was World War II, it’s hard for him to appear as anything else. What he endured was beyond everyday experience, and even in comparison to other wars, World War II just seems so much greater in the mind’s eye, so big that only gallant men like Donald Stratton and his USS Arizona shipmates were capable of pulling it off.
I’ve long considered the generations after World War II to have it too good. It begs the question – if we needed to do the same thing, would we rise to the occasion? Or have we been too domesticated, too tamed by the victory that Donald Stratton and all the gallant men of his generation won for us?
When a wild animal is domesticated, it loses some of its survival instincts and its brain shrinks. Dogs’ brains are smaller than their wild wolf ancestors and cousins. Even our own brains have shrunk significantly since we started domesticating ourselves, in a way. Is it making us dumber? It’s hard to conclude otherwise when we see people frothing at the mouth on social media all day because of a website change at the White House.
But that would be confirmation bias on my part.
What I do know is that we need to challenge ourselves and prevent ourselves from becoming intelligent pets. Fortunately, we probably won’t need to do it in the way that Donald Stratton, his USS Arizona shipmates, and all the other gallant men of World War II did, but we can find our own ways of doing it.
All The Gallant Men isn’t just a tale of one man, it’s the tale of how an entire generation emerged from an atmosphere that, though it may have been hard, it was, they thought, safe. America was separated by two oceans from all potential aggressors. No one could possibly attack it. They found out the hard way on December 7th, at Pearl Harbor.
An entire generation emerged from its state of domestication to take up the challenge, to hone their instincts and steel themselves in the wild of the battlefield. They did, and won kleos doing it.
All The Gallant Men shows you the mindset of those men. It’s a challenge all on its own. It will want to get you off your ass, out of your tame domestication, and prove yourself. If Donald Stratton and his gallant USS Arizona shipmates could rope himself over flaming black pools of water to safety on his burned hands with his skin falling off, while Japanese Zeros were strafing him, you have no right to bitch about your “tough times.”
I highly recommend it. You will honor yourself and those gallant men who did it all for you.