An emotional Don Stratton rose from his seat on the floor of the Colorado State House of Representatives on Friday, January 26, 2018 to acknowledge the roar of applause coming from state lawmakers and visitors.
The 95-year-old Pearl Harbor survivor looked around, raised his right hand and gave everyone in the room a hearty salute.
The ovation and emotional response from those in attendance, which included Stratton’s family, a two El Paso County Commissioners and U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner came after the presentation of a Resolution naming the Fillmore Street bridge spanning Interstate 25 in Colorado Springs, the Don Stratton Bridge.
Navy veteran Stratton narrowly escaped explosions and flames onboard the USS Arizona on Dec. 7, 1941, “a day that lives in infamy.” That was the day that the Japanese Empire launched a surprise attack on the United States Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, vaulting America into World War II.
“It was a privilege to help bring this recognition to Don Stratton in honor of all World War II veterans and, especially, those who served through the horrific attack on Pearl Harbor,” said Rep. Larry Liston, who sponsored the Resolution and represents the area where Stratton lives just east of the bridge that will bear the war hero’s name. “My colleagues in the State Capitol enjoyed meeting and talking with Don and were happy to lend their support for this special event.”
The Resolution paints a picture of Stratton’s experience on that infamous day in 1941. He was on the Arizona, heading to visit a fellow sailor in sick bay when the attack began. He ran to his battle station to calibrate the fired response at the invading Japanese forces. During the onslaught, a nearby munitions supply was hit and exploded. Stratton, with burns over most his body, and five others managed to escape the doomed ship, shimmying down a rope thrown to them by another sailor, Joe George, who was aboard the nearby USS Vestal, a repair ship that was next to the great battleship.
Stratton is one of only five remaining sailors that were on the USS Arizona during the attack. There were only 335 of the 1,512 men aboard the battleship who found their way to safety before ship sunk to the ocean floor.
Stratton received the Recognition from state lawmakers with tremendous humility. When asked about his experience, Stratton noted, “Well. Everyone has to be somewhere.”
Commissioners Stan VanderWerf and Peggy Littleton sat with Stratton in the State Capitol as the Resolution was presented.
“Stratton is a personal hero of mine,” said Stan VanderWerf. “He is a local hero in our community. He is a wonderful gentleman.”
“What a man of integrity and character,” Littleton added. “When faced with the most critical odds, he found a way to survive. He is truly a man of faith, trusting God, to the point of re-enlisting even after all he had been through.”
After his initial discharge as a result of injuries suffered in the attack, Stratton returned to uniform in 1943.
“It’s very apparent that Don Stratton loves America and gave sacrificially to protect the freedoms that we all enjoy,” Littleton said.
Stratton joins fellow Pearl Harbor survivor and El Paso County resident Jim Downing in having a prominent bridge carry his name. Jim Downing was on the USS West Virginia when the Japanese bombers attacked. The newly reconfigured Cimarron Street at I-25 bridge was named for the 104-year-old Downing with ceremonies in October 2017.
Efforts to honor Stratton’s legacy began in 2016 when Commissioner VanderWerf was a candidate campaigning door-to-door. Stratton and his wife Velma invited him in for a cup of tea. He was so impressed by Stratton’s courageous service that VanderWerf initiated a County Proclamation declaring June 8, 2017 as Don Stratton Day in El Paso County.
Stratton’s service will be further highlighted later this year with the unveiling of new signage on the Donald “Don” Stratton Bridge. Stratton commented quietly to Commissioner Peggy Littleton that this will make it easier for him to give visitors directions to his home, “I can tell them to get off the highway at the Don Stratton Bridge,” he quipped.
Working with Stratton and his family is a newly formed Pikes Peak Heroes Legacy Committee. That group is finalizing the requirements to secure a small piece of the USS Arizona for permanent display in El Paso County.
“It’s important to honor Don Stratton and other heroes in our country and in our community for the sacrifices they’ve made,” Commissioner VanderWerf concluded.