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Sunday, November 23, 2014         

WITNESS TO INFAMY


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Spot yielded view of consuming fireball; Duties gave chilling awareness of threat

By William Cole

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Perched above deck, seaman's spot yielded view of consuming fireball

When a 1,764-pound Japanese armor-piercing bomb slammed into the forward deck of the USS Arizona, igniting fuel stores and powder magazines, the explosion and fireball killed 1,177 men.

Don Stratton, a 19-year-old seaman first class from Red Cloud, Neb., was 45 feet above the main deck.

"That big bomb hit right on the starboard side aft of the No. 2 (gun) turret, and it literally blew about 110 foot of the bow of the ship clear off," Stratton said. "It went into a million pounds of ammunition and aviation gasoline and fuel oil, and the fireball went about 600 or 800 feet in the air and it just engulfed us up there where we were at."

Stratton, a sight-setter for the ship's 5-inch guns, was enclosed in a room one deck above the bridge on the foremast.

"The fire just set all the steel red hot, and we were there trying to get into quarters someplace to get away from the fire, but I was burned over 65 percent of my body," he said.

The uniform of the day was T-shirts and shorts, and his legs were burned from the thighs to the ankles. His hair was burned off. Both his arms had burns, and so did his back, face and neck.

Stratton, now 88 and living in Colorado Springs, still doesn't talk about the carnage that came in that moment, but he says the explosion "shook that 35,000-ton ship like it was a dog shaking a rat."

"After that I went into self-preservation, trying to get out of the fire and everything else," he said. "Finally, the fire went down and the sea breeze blew the smoke away, and we got out on deck and the Vestal was tied up alongside us — a repair ship — her bow to our stern.

"There was a sailor on board, and we got his attention and he throwed a heaving line and tied on a heavier line and pulled it across to the Arizona, and six of us went hand over hand across that line after we were burned."

He was in hospitals for a year and was medically discharged in 1942.

After returning to Nebraska for a year, Stratton re-enlisted in the Navy, went back through boot camp, was assigned to the destroyer USS Stack and served in the invasions of New Guinea, the Philippines and Okinawa.

 

Young sailor's duties on ship gave him chilling awareness of threat

Durrell Conner figures he had the best job in the Navy on the battleship USS California.

The 22-year-old worked on the "coding board" for Vice Adm. William S. Pye, the fleet battle force commander.

"We encoded and decoded all the classified messages that came in for the admiral, and so I had a ringside seat for everything that was going on," Conner said. He knew that the U.S. had lost the whereabouts of the Japanese fleet.

"We didn't know where it was, and we had very strained relationships at that time with them," Conner said. "We received a message from the CNO, chief of naval operations, telling us that the Japanese were nowhere to be known, and for us to be prepared for a sneak attack that might come on either a holiday or a Sunday morning — that's exactly the wording they put (out)."

The message came about two weeks before the attack, he recalls. Fleet commander Adm. Husband Kimmel and his Army counterpart, Lt. Gen. Walter Short, "took it quite lightly, I guess," Conner said. "They didn't think it was too much of a threat, and they weren't prepared."

Conner could not discuss the information with anyone except others who were on the coding board.

"We would kind of laughingly say, 'I wonder if it's going to be today,'" he recalled.

The morning of the attack, Conner, now 92 and living in Sun City, Calif., was wrapping Christmas presents to mail home. He heard a commotion, looked out a porthole and saw a plane with red circles on it drop a torpedo, which struck the California about two decks below.

"It was a big heavy ship, and you feel a shake, just kind of like you'd expect an earthquake to feel," he said.

He recalled the ship taking two torpedoes and a 500-pound bomb amidships that "started a tremendous fire."

Conner passed anti-aircraft ammunition man to man inside the ship, and at about 10 a.m. the captain ordered the California to be abandoned, he said.

"Evidently the wind shifted or something and the smoke didn't look so bad, so the captain changed his mind and asked the men to come on back and fight the fire," Conner said.

He also noticed the flag had not been raised.

"So I grabbed a man to help me, and we went over and raised the flag and all the men started coming back," Conner said. "Of course, now I don't claim that had anything to do with the men coming back, but it just happened to be at the right time."






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