USS Arizona survivors gather for reunion of Pearl Harbor attack
By WYATT OLSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 3, 2014
WWII VALOR IN THE PACIFIC NATIONAL MONUMENT, Hawaii — John D. Anderson spent the night after the 1941 surprise attack on Pearl Harbor lying in a bomb-blast crater in the tarmac runway on Ford Island. The sailor had escaped the fiery decks of the USS Arizona, found a rifle and two bandoliers of ammo and started shooting at Japanese planes.
After hunkering there through the night with another sailor, a passing Marine patrol told him that survivors of the Arizona were to gather at a nearby dock so a head count could be made.
“Everybody I saw there had rags around their heads,” the 97-year-old Anderson told a news conference Tuesday. Bandages covered their arms, skin was scorched and hair was burned off. “Beat up something awful,” he said.
Now, days away from the 73rd anniversary of the attack, four of the nine living Arizona survivors have returned to Pearl Harbor for what is likely the last official reunion at the USS Arizona Memorial for the annual Dec. 7 observance.
The Arizona sank after a massive explosion of its forward ammunition during the attack, and 1,177 sailors died. Many of the bodies remained entombed in the sunken ship, which was designated a national memorial in 1962.
On Sunday afternoon, the four men will toast their shipmates with a bottle of sparkling wine given to their survivors’ association in 1975 by President Gerald Ford from the White House wine collection.
Anderson, joined by Louis Conter, 93, Donald Stratton, 92, and Lauren Bruner, 94, will drink from original wine glasses from the USS Arizona. One glass will then be placed in the sunken ship’s fourth turret barbette, which also holds 38 urns with the ashes of Arizona survivors who chose to be laid to rest there.
Following the news conference, a live-feed video shot by divers at the Arizona was shown.
Although this year’s gathering is being touted as a final reunion, Conter said he had a sure sign that at least some of the men would return to Honolulu in 2015.
“My wife saves quarters every year from the time we have the reunion so she’ll have money for Mai Tais, and she’s already saving them for next year. So I don’t think this is going to be our last,” Conter said. “John’s our eldest man here, and Don’s our youngest, but we’ve still got time to go. So we’ll be back out here no matter whether the rest of the crowd can make it or not.”
During the sometimes-emotional news conference, attended by many of the survivors’ family members and friends, National Park Service historian Daniel Martinez announced that Bruner and Conter had decided to have their cremated ashes placed in the ship.
“Well, I studied it for a long time,” Bruner explained. “All my family and friends have been buried in various places, cemeteries. But it seems like after a while, nobody pays attention to them anymore after about five years. I hope that a lot of people will still be coming to the Arizona. I would be glad to see them.”
Conter likened the interment to being “with our shipmates for our permanent duty station.”
Martinez said he once asked Stratton if he intended to have his ashes placed in barbette.
“He said to me that he came so close to being burned alive that cremation probably wasn’t the way to go,” Martinez said.
Stratton shared some of his memories of that December morning, when, at age 19, he’d just finished eating breakfast and walked out onto Arizona’s bow.
“Some sailors were pointing to Ford Island and hollering,” he said. “I took a look and I seen one of the planes bank and seen the sunrise of the Japanese insignia. I started for my battle station, which was one deck above the bridge, where the admiral and captain were both killed that day.”
Standing next to Bruner, the sailors fired at the swarming planes, but without much luck. Then the ship’s forward ammo was hit.
“A million pounds of ammunition exploded, and the fireball engulfed us up there,” Stratton said.
“I went to get a gun and I discovered I didn’t have any fingerprints. So you can imagine how badly my hands were burnt.”
A sailor from a repair boat that had been alongside the Arizona cast a heaving line to the men so they could then pull up a larger rope. Stratton, Bruner and four other sailors escaped by scaling hand-over-hand across the flames on the 60 feet of rope.
Stratton was burned over 65 percent of his body. He arrived in a California hospital on Christmas Day, underwent recovery and rehab for more than a year, then returned to Nebraska after being medically discharged.
“I was there for about a year and then I re-enlisted and went back in,” he said. He served as a ship’s gunner in the South Pacific, all the way to Okinawa to the end of the war.
Stratton said he has asked himself why he survived the Pearl Harbor attack when so many of his shipmates didn’t. For him, the answer is simply that “everybody has to be someplace, and the good Lord saved just a few of us. A terrible day. A terrible day.”