By Ensign Mackenzie Orr, 1st Battalion “A” Company
As the first and only memoir by a USS Arizona (BB 39) survivor, the New York Times bestseller “All the Gallant Men” provides an eyewitness account of the Pearl Harbor attack through Donald Stratton’s powerful story of courage, loss, and survival. At the age of 95, Stratton recounts his experiences during World War II with the help of Ken Gire, which makes it a particularly intriguing reading choice. After years of consideration, Stratton chooses to deliver a firsthand account of the brave actions of American Sailors when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. The memoir provides insight into the Navy of the World War II era—arguably a time period that tested and established United States dominance in naval warfare. Most importantly, his memoir is a story of personal resilience under harrowing circumstances. It highlights the unconquerable spirit of an American Sailor as Stratton fights to overcome life-threatening injuries in order to return to the fight.
On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, as the color guards assembled on the decks of the United States Navy ships moored in Pearl Harbor, Captain Mitsuo Fuchida’s radioman signaled “To, to, to”—the first syllable of the Japanese word for “charge.”1 The order initiated the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, which ended with 2,403 service members killed, 1,176 wounded, and staggering destruction to half of the Pacific Fleet’s ships and aircraft.2 In “All the Gallant Men,” Stratton provides a poignant personal account of the events that day from his perspective as a seaman first class aboard the Arizona. Stratton begins the story as a 19-year-old from Red Cloud, Nebraska who joins the Navy to escape the poverty caused by the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression. The truth, according to Stratton, is that many of his fellow Sailors joined for similar reasons—they needed jobs—and in their naivety, none of them imagined they would be fighting for their lives and to save the half of the Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor.3 Stratton recalls in detail the horrors of the attack. He relives escaping the inferno of the blasts by moving hand-over-hand across a rope attached to an adjacent ship. He remembers his nights in the hospital with the other burn victims, the cries of dying men, and the caring nurses who comforted them to ensure no man died alone. Out of these dark days Stratton rose, recovering from the burns to two-thirds of his body and reenlisting in 1944 to fight alongside his shipmates. Thus, in addition to the Pearl Harbor attack, Stratton’s memoir includes his unique memories of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, and the last major battle of the war, the Invasion of Okinawa—making him one of few men who served at both the first and last shots of World War II. Those who visit Pearl Harbor can tour the Arizona Memorial, where the names of the 1,177 men who perished are chiseled onto the white marble wall, and where the remains of more than a thousand of those men lay at rest with the sunken battleship.4 At his age, Stratton recognizes that as the number of witnesses of the attack shrinks each year, his duty to tell the stories behind the names of the men who so bravely fought and sacrificed grows. They had families and loved ones and tales which deserve to be told. He eloquently achieves this purpose in “All the Gallant Men.”
Relevance to Navy Core Values
There is a wallet in the Roosevelt Presidential Library that one may not find interesting upon first glance; however, for Stratton it contains a significant poem. The wallet was Eleanor Roosevelt’s and the poem goes: “Somehow out there A man died for me today. As long as there be war, I must answer Am I worth dying for?”5 Eleanor Roosevelt put the poem in her wallet after the Pearl Harbor attack and carried it with her for the rest of her life. It begs a question that we can all consider, “Am I?” Stratton considers it daily. To live with the Navy core value of honor is to live a life worth the sacrifices of gallant men.
As indicated by the title of the memoir, the most distinct core value observed by Stratton was courage. As flames engulfed the Arizona, catching the Sailors on fire, men stumbled, crawled, and fell on the quarterdeck, yet they courageously continued to fight. A fellow Sailor in Stratton’s division, Clay Musik, recalls the courage he saw in one leader. As the chaos unfolded, Musik remembers, “Lt. Cmdr. Samuel G. Fuqua...[as he] walked among the dead, wounded, and the wreckage, calmly directing survivors over the side.” 6 His memory is corroborated by another man aboard, a Marine sergeant who wrote, “[Fuqua’s] calmness gave me courage and I looked around the deck to see if I could help...I am proud to say I came under his authority.” 7 Lt. Cmdr. Fuqua embodied the core value of courage by staying aboard until the very end. He led his men to fight the flames and helped his men get off the ship to safety. His unruffled strength inspired the men around him and exemplifies courage in the grimmest of circumstances. The commitment of Joe George saved Stratton’s life. As Stratton and six other men from his division stood trapped in flames, George ignored orders from a superior to cut the ropes linking his ship to the Arizona. After multiple attempts, he threw an additional life-saving rope over to Stratton and his men before cutting the other lines. He never knew if the men survived, but Stratton never forgot his name and the action which saved his life. Gallant men such as Joe George drove Stratton to return to the war in 1944. For Stratton, there was no other option; he needed to rejoin his brothers-in-arms. For him, combat created a level of commitment that no other condition could reproduce. These stories are just a few of Stratton’s numerous examples of the Navy’s core values of honor, courage and commitment in “All the Gallant Men.”
As a 95-year-old with years of experience and time to reflect, Stratton leaves us with simple advice: “Absorb the training you receive, every bit of it; you never know what part of it you may need. An attack could happen again, anytime, anywhere.”8 Through his riveting recreation of the Pearl Harbor attack and intuitive lessons, Stratton proves the significance of this advice. The American population as a whole will identify with the patriotism in “All the Gallant Men,” but for the one percent who serve, Stratton’s words will resonate on a deeper level. His lessons and memories come after years of reflection, and Sailors should take the time to read and consider what he tells us. Truth be told, the Japanese caught America off-guard, as did Al-Qaeda on Sept. 11, 2001. A series of erroneous decisions left the Sailors at Pearl Harbor unaware of the incoming attack. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said best, “It is our obligation to the dead—it is our sacred obligation to their children and to our children—that we must never forget what we have learned...that we cannot measure our safety in terms of miles on any map anymore.”9 He provides a humbling reminder to learn from our mistakes and to value our obligations as Americans and service members. Every year as the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack approaches and we prepare for colors on the morning of Dec. 7, our duty is to honor those who went before us. It is a time to remember that in that moment 77 years ago, men took to their battle stations and gave their lives in support of the freedom we cherish as Americans. As Stratton underscores, to do their memory justice we must never be complacent in our training, and we must continue to uphold the values which make the United States Navy the strongest and most feared in the world.
Stratton, Donald and Ken Gire. All the Gallant Men. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2016.
1 Donald Stratton and Ken Gire, All the Gallant Men (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2016), 83. 2 Stratton, 111. 3 Ibid, 9. 4 Ibid, 113. 5 Ibid, 128. 6 Ibid, 97. 7 Ibid, 98. 8 Ibid, 229. 9 Ibid, 215. Spring 2019