I always loved listening to my grandfather’s stories about the War, but more than anything I admired how contextualized the experience. Pearl Harbor and the War were never really about him. Instead, we should remember all the men who didn’t survive the attack or the next four years of conflict and carnage, as well as their families, and ask ourselves two simple questions: for all the men who died, are our lives worth the sacrifice? And what can we do to make sure that another Pearl Harbor never happens again? World War II veteran Don Stratton’s reminiscence about the attack on Pearl Harbor, his long recovery from the injuries he sustained that morning, and his return to action in 1944 wrestles with these questions in All the Gallant Men: The First Memoir by a USS Arizona Survivor (2016).
Stratton’s memoir (written with author Ken Gire) recalls his story, beginning with his hardscrabble childhood in Red Cloud, Nebraska during the Great Depression, followed by his enlistment in 1940 and his year on the USS Arizona before the Attack. The first part of the book concludes with the Attack itself, and includes Stratton’s survival story (thanks in no small part to Petty Office First Class Joe George’s efforts to save him and several other sailors aboard the burning Arizona, defying his captain’s orders).
Despite receiving burns on over 60% of his body, Stratton was one of the lucky ones: out of 1,512 officers and crew aboard the battleship, 1,177 lost their lives.
The second part of the book follows Stratton as he began his slow, painful recovery and rehabilitation before finally returning home to Red Cloud. By 1944, however, he was physically and mentally ready to return to the War, and he reenlisted. Stratton saw action aboard a destroyer, the USS Stack, in the Battle of Leyte Gulf and during the invasion of Okinawa. The rest of the book reflects on the lessons he learned, the sacrifices his shipmates made, and entreats readers to remember both those sacrifices and to remember Pearl Harbor itself so that we never have to face such a disaster again.
This book is a valuable addition to the growing library of books about Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona in particular, and between Ken Gire’s writing chops and Stratton’s own telling of the story and analysis the book successfully communicates the author’s perspective without getting bogged down in the many compositional and narrative sins that memoir authors often face. Stratton was wise to wait to tell his story until the right writer and publishing house came along, even if that wait happened to be seventy-five years long. Both tragic and empowering, Stratton’s story not only appeals to World War II history buffs, but to anyone interested in historical memory and Naval history in general. It is also a short book, and an avid reader could likely complete it in the same amount of time it takes to fly from Bremerton, Washington to Honolulu in 2019 (a trip that took the Arizona five days to complete in 1940).
For my own purposes, it is a great model for how to frame my grandpa’s story, especially given how Stratton carefully and colorfully describes his pre-War life in Nebraska. But it is also a good reminder that all Pearl Harbor histories should, in some way, pay tribute to the thousands of men who died on December 7th, and who could not go on to write memoirs of their own.