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All the Gallant Men: The First Memoir by a USS Arizona Survivor by Donald Stratton (with Ken Gire)

January 16, 2017

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In late November, 1941, the USS Arizona was scheduled to travel to Washington state for some upgrades. The spirits of the crew were high since this meant they would be home for Christmas. But on a foggy day in October, during exercises near Hawaii, the ship was struck by the USS Oklahoma. Damages were relatively minor, but it kept the Arizona in Hawaii for repairs.

This little twist of fate, among many others, is something Stratton openly grapples with in this memoir of Pearl Harbor. How did the world conspire to place him on the deck of the Arizona on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked? And when he thinks of all the men who were killed in that attack, the haunting question: “Why me and not those who fought beside me?”

This book is a fast read, but big in scope. Stratton recalls life growing up in Nebraska during the depression, his decision to enlist in the Navy, life aboard the Arizona and the events of December 7. Everyone knows about Pearl Harbor as the date that the Japanese executed a surprise attack on the US Navy, ultimately pulling the US into the second World War. Stratton’s account gives it historical context, but it also makes it personal. He humanizes the story, giving us a deck-level account of the terror and heroism on the Arizona. And he traces the scars—physical, mental and spiritual—seventy-five years later.

Donald Stratton’s story is a swirl of complicated emotions. Stratton recounts reconciliation ceremonies in which Japanese pilots met American sailors, lamenting that he still can’t find forgiveness in his Christian heart. He discusses his lingering anger at US command, who had several warnings—including the sinking of a Japanese sub near Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7—that an attack could be imminent. And he draws hard-earned lessons from the attack—lack of foresight, poor communication and overconfidence—giving them the added context of the September 11 attacks sixty years later.

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Donald Stratton. USS Arizona survivor, American hero.

But the most significant purpose of this book, and the one for which everyone should read it, is the simple fact that it remembers. It remembers December 7, 1941 with all its lessons, and it also remembers the men who died, the men and women who came to the aid of the wounded, and the lives of men like Stratton himself. The Japanese dropped a specially-designed armor-piercing bomb on the Arizona. It penetrated four levels to the ship’s forward magazine (ammo storage). The explosion killed hundreds of sailors instantly. 1,177 Arizona officers and crewmen died that day. Stratton suffered burns on two-thirds of his body. He spent many months of excruciating recovery, years with painful emotional scars. Then, in 1944, he re-enlisted. He shipped out once again to serve his country. That’s about as heroic as it gets.

This book was a surprise Christmas gift from my mom. A great book to start the new year.

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