VFW Magazine November/December 2016 : Page-16
THREE SURVIVORS SURVIV S RECALL THE JAPANESE ATTACK B Y J EROME G REER C HANDLER PEARL HAR So few survivors of Dec. 7, 1941, remain that the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association disbanded in 2011. So hearing from these veterans some 75 years later is unique. One served aboard the famed Arizona, another on the minesweeper Condor and the third as a sailor ashore at Bishop Point. Here are their stories as told by men 94, 96 and 104. BAPTISM BY FIRE Nineteen-year-old Donald Stratton had just fi nished eating breakfast on the battleship USS Arizona and was taking a hatful of oranges to shipmates when all hell broke loose. “Some sailors were pointing toward Ford Island,” he remembered. “One of the planes banked and I could see the rising sun. I said, ‘Uh oh,’ and headed for my battle station.” He clambered up a half-dozen ladders to get to his port anti-aircraft gun director station, a scant deck above the bridge. By the time he got there, general quarters was sounding through the ship. Snarling aircraft fi lled the sky—“torpedo planes, dive bomb-ers, everything. We were trying to shoot at them, but couldn’t.” That’s because in one direction lay Ford Island and its air-ABOVE: Three of the battleships struck in the Japanese attack were the USS West Virginia , USS Tennessee and USS Arizona . 16 • VFW • NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2016 LIBRARY OF CONGRESS PHOTO
Pearl Harbor: Three Survivors Recall The Japanese Attack
Jerome Greer Chandler
So few survivors of Dec. 7, 1941, remain that the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association disbanded in 2011. So hearing from these veterans some 75 years later is unique. One served aboard the famed Arizona, another on the minesweeper Condor and the third as a sailor ashore at Bishop Point.
Here are their stories as told by men 94, 96 and 104.
BAPTISM BY FIRE
Nineteen-year-old Donald Stratton had just finished eating breakfast on the battleship USS Arizona and was taking a hatful of oranges to shipmates when all hell broke loose.
“Some sailors were pointing toward Ford Island,” he remembered. “One of the planes banked and I could see the rising sun. I said, ‘Uh oh,’ and headed for my battle station.”
He clambered up a half-dozen ladders to get to his port antiaircraft gun director station, a scant deck above the bridge. By the time he got there, general quarters was sounding through the ship.
Snarling aircraft filled the sky—“torpedo planes, dive bombers, everything. We were trying to shoot at them, but couldn’t.”
That’s because in one direction lay Ford Island and its air- field. In the other was the moored repair ship USS Vestal. Gunners focused on hitting high-altitude bombers instead.
That’s when, Stratton said, a 1,200- pound bomb “hit us on the starboard side, [near] No. 2 turret and exploded a million pounds of ammunition.”
The infernal ignition wrenched the proud ship out of the water, amputating some 110 feet of the vessel.
The captain and admiral were both dead on the bridge just below. Stratton and comrades were cut off from escape; the deck red-hot.
Joe George, a seaman on nearby Vestal, “threw us a line,” Stratton said. He and five others made it a literal lifeline. Stratton credits George with saving his life. Arizona’s crew lost 1,177 men—nearly half the killed in action incurred at Pearl Harbor.
Burns blistered and charred some 65% of Stratton’s body, obliterating his fingerprints and landing him in the hospital for one year. After being medically discharged, he headed home to Red Cloud, Neb.
But the life-long attraction of the sea pulled him back to the Navy, where he was offered a shore job.
“I wanted to go to sea,” he said.
And so he did, on the destroyer USS Stack, as a gunner’s mate. Among other engagements, Stack supported the New Guinea landings and both the Leyte Gulf (Philippines) and Okinawa invasions.
After the war, he worked on the sea once more, on drilling rigs off California. The search for undersea oil took him around the world.
Now 94, Stratton lives with Velma, his wife of 66 years, far from the ocean in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Asked about the significance of Pearl Harbor to younger generations, he says: “They can’t really understand how devastating it was that day … The heartbreak that happened on the Arizona. Nobody really understands unless they were there.”
Stratton is a member of VFW Post 2521 in Santa Maria, Calif.
BEFORE THE PLANES CAME
Then 29-year-old Raymond Chavez remembers the time precisely, these 75 years later. It was 3:42 a.m. when the seaman first class heard the spotter stationed at the bow of the minesweeper USS Condor yell out, “Hey skipper, we got company.”
The spotter said he thought he’d seen a periscope. “Who? What? Where?” came the reply. The captain of the unarmed Condor said to notify the destroyer USS Ward, also on patrol in Pearl Harbor that December Sunday morning.
“At first, the Ward couldn’t find [the midget Japanese submarine],” remembers Chavez. “[The captain] probably thought we were seeing things.”
What Condor’s spotter saw was the prelude to the main event three hours later—the full-blown attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
“After our watch, we got to go home,” Chavez said. He’d usually have breakfast in base housing with wife, Margaret, and daughter Peggy. This morning he was too tired to eat and just craved sleep.
“It seemed like I’d just gone to sleep when [Margaret] started shouting for me to get up.”
“Who’s attacking us?” asked a disbelieving Chavez groggily.
“The Japanese are, and the whole harbor is on fire,” Margaret answered.
Chavez went outside to see “an airplane flying about 100 feet off the ground... We looked at the pilot’s face— and he looked at us.”
Chavez threw on his uniform, borrowed his brother’s bicycle and followed the smoke.
“I was wondering how I was going to get back to my ship when a friend stopped and asked if I needed a ride,” he said.
When he got to the harbor “tears came to my eyes.” It was obvious many had died that day.
Condor headed out to conduct another sweep of Pearl Harbor. Upon return to the minesweeper’s berth, her crew—and others—were confined to their ships. Margaret and Peggy were, along with other families, evacuated to Honolulu with only their purses and the clothes on their backs.
Families were later evacuated from Pearl to the mainland. Meanwhile, Chavez was assigned to the troop transport USS LaSalle, where he participated in supporting eight engagements.
“After several battles, my hands began to shake,” Chavez said.
After the war, he worked in his family’s gardening business, eventually running his own landscaping company. He lives with his daughter, Kathleen Chavez, in Poway, Calif., where both father and daughter are members of VFW Post 7907.
.30 CALIBER RIFLES VS. ZEROS
Alfred Rodrigues was 21 and assigned to Bishop Point at the entrance to Pearl Harbor. On Dec. 7, the Navy storekeeper arose at 3:30 a.m., bathed and saw to it that all shipmates were accounted for. His watch was slated to conclude at 8 a.m.
When Rodrigues first heard the explosions emanating from Pearl, he thought it was the Navy dredging the harbor again. Then the alarm sounded throughout Bishop Point: “Man your battle stations. This is not a drill.”
“We ran over to the armory, and I was issued a .30-caliber rifle,” he vividly remembers. “We started shooting at airplanes. They were flying so low you could see the pilots’ faces. It didn’t take very long to accept what was happening.”
In 1943, Rodrigues reported aboard the battleship USS Washington as storekeeper first class. He said, “We encountered several battles.”
He was on leave in New York City the day the nation found out the war in the Pacific was over.
After the war, drawing on his naval experience, he worked as a warehouse foreman and later general manager within the General Services Administration. Now 96, Alfred Rodrigues lives in Kailua, Hawaii.
JEROME GREER CHANDLER is a frequent contributor to VFW. He is a member, Vietnam vet and college journalism professor.
Read the full article at http://digitaledition.qwinc.com/article/Pearl+Harbor%3A+Three+Survivors+Recall+The+Japanese+Attack/2600822/343594/article.html.
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