And Finally - The Best of Us

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News September 2017

Whenever I’m in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Hospital and am aware of a World War II veteran patient, I always try to make sure to visit him or her and introduce myself to the spouse and family if they’re visiting.

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The Best of Us

Whenever I’m in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Hospital and am aware of a World War II veteran patient, I always try to make sure to visit him or her and introduce myself to the spouse and family if they’re visiting. I do this because I always refer to World War II veterans as “the best of us.” It’s a bit of a pun, since I use the word “us” as a shortcut to saying U.S. or, of course, “the United States.” I came up with that saying in part after joining and finding a book my friends recommended called All the Gallant Men. It’s written by Donald Stratton, one of the initial 355 surviving members of the USS Arizona in the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. As of last year’s USS Arizona reunion, there were five, including Stratton. I won’t presume to insult anyone by reiterating the significance of the Arizona, however, I need to retell the story of Stratton and Joseph George.

Shoot & Hope

Stratton was walking back to the Arizona on Dec. 7, 1941, carrying oranges in his cover, when he looked up and saw a squad of Japanese Zeros ready to lay waste to Pearl Harbor. Instead of running for cover, Stratton rushed to his ship. As he got on board, a torpedo hit exploded below deck, gunfire was all around him and alarms were going off everywhere. Stratton manned his antiaircraft gun with his team and began firing, at times at a 90-degree angle. After firing volley after volley, Stratton opened his hatch to survey the area. 

“I observed the Tennessee and the West Virginia take hits. I witnessed the Oklahoma lurch to one side, then roll over and capsize. I saw a fireball in the drydock where the Pennsylvania was,” Stratton says in his book.

It seemed Stratton was so distracted watching the fleet get destroyed, he failed to grasp his own drastic situation. Eventually, the Arizona become so disabled that the gun turrets no longer functioned and began to misfire and the bomb explosions were getting closer. Still, Stratton and his team didn’t abandon their station.

“And as we threw our shells into the sky, as many as we could, hoping the shrapnel might shatter a cockpit, rupture a fuel line, clip a propeller. It’s all we could do. Shoot and hope,” Stratton says in his book.  

The last explosion was the one that got their turret. Although badly burned, Stratton and his team were still alive but not for long. The Arizona and her crew of more than 1,500 sailors and Marines were in bad shape. Stratton and his team seemed doomed when a rope from the adjacent USS Vestal appeared among the smoke and flames. A sailor named Joe George was on the other end shouting, “Come on, come on!” Stratton, with burns over 60% of his body, and the rest of his team used the rope to make it to the Vestal and eventually to safety. He spent more than six months healing at a Naval hospital and another few months learning to walk again.

Ready To Serve Again

Stratton was discharged from the Navy, immediately requested to reenlist and was denied. He asked to reenlist again and was told only if he underwent boot camp a second time. Stratton did and was awarded the opportunity to be a drill instructor. He turned it down and requested duty aboard a warship. Stratton spent 1945 aboard the USS Stack, participating in five invasions before the eventual victory of the Allied forces. After the war, Stratton returned to his home in Nebraska, drove a truck, married and had four children. I hope you’re feeling as humble as I am, knowing we follow in the footsteps of such a man. And if it wasn’t for George, Stratton would have perished with so many others on the Arizona. However, George was never recognized by the Navy for his actions.

An Unsung Hero

During Pearl Harbor, the Vestal’s deck officer was attempting to save the ship and ordered George to dislodge the Vestal from the Arizona. George’s act of throwing the rope to Stratton and the others was a violation of a direct order from a senior officer. It also didn’t help that George had just been released from the brig for a bar fight a few days earlier. Sometimes, I’m asked how people like Adms. William Halsey and Chester Nimitz engineered such key Pacific naval victories in World War II. It might be because they had sailors like Stratton and George. Maybe the Navy can’t thank George, but I know Stratton and his family does, and now so do I. George deserves to be named as one of the best of us. Sometimes, the wrong thing is done for the right reasons. But then, it was Adm. David Farragut who coined the phrase, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead.” Maybe it can be said of Stratton and George that they all acted within our armed forces’ highest tradition. Damn the torpedoes.

Scoba Rhodes is a U.S. Navy veteran and author of  Rules of Engagement: A Self-Help Guide for Those Overcoming Major Personal Trauma.

The opinions of the author do not necessarily reflect the position of Paralyzed Veterans of America.


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And Finally - The Best of Us


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