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Then there were three: Colorado Springs Navy veteran one of last survivors of USS Arizona

Donald Stratton, a USS Arizona survivor, and his wife, Velma, depart the ceremony through an honor cordon at Pearl Harbor Visitor's Center, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017.

WYATT OLSON/STARS AND STRIPES

By SAM TABACHNIK | The Denver Post | Published: December 7, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — The numbers continue to dwindle.

After 98-year-old Lauren Bruner's September death, only three people who were on the USS Arizona on Dec. 7, 1941, during Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, remain alive.

Colorado Springs native Donald Stratton is one of them.

On Saturday, the 78th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, he will watch a live stream of Bruner's ashes being interred on the sunken remains of the Arizona.

With fewer and fewer people available to tell firsthand stories of the day that changed the course of world history, World War II veterans and their families worry that their tales will be lost to time.

"Once these stories are gone," said Stratton's son, Randy, "we'll never get them back."

The Pearl Harbor attack killed 2,400 Americans and injured 1,200 more. President Franklin Roosevelt called it "a date which will live in infamy," asking Congress the next day to approve a declaration of war against Japan, and sparking America's entrance into the deadliest conflict in world history.

On Tuesday, Stratton, 97, was honored with an exhibit at the Colorado Springs Airport, a display complete with a piece of the Arizona donated by the U.S. Navy.

And to think: He very nearly died at age 19.

Stratton was burned on 65% of his body that day, spared only by the heroics of a fellow serviceman, Joe George, who threw him a rope as the burning Arizona was sinking. Stratton spent a year in a hospital recovering, then re-enlisted in the Navy later in the war.

He wrote a book about his inspirational story and even has an action figure of his likeness, but his availability to tell his story also has its limits after recent health issues. Randy Stratton and his daughter, Nikki, took Donald's place Tuesday at the airport ceremony and spoke for him in advance of the anniversary.

"To have displays like at the airport is one of the major things that can help tell this story," Randy Stratton said.

It's a story that he and others worry is being overlooked by younger generations. In September, the last chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association held its final meeting in La Mesa, Calif. At its peak, the survivors association had 18,000 members, but its numbers dwindled to less than 300.

"I think they've lost complete touch," Stratton said of younger generations. "I don't think schools teach Pearl Harbor anymore."

The generation gap became apparent to Randy Stratton when he heard a local student, and ROTC member, admit he didn't know about Pearl Harbor.

Glen Stenson, a World War II veteran who served in the Pacific, said decades later he thinks constantly about the Pearl Harbor attack. He enlisted soon after three boys from his hometown of Holyoke were killed on the Arizona.

Young people remember the horrors of Sept. 11, Stenson said, but don't know much about Pearl Harbor. When asked what can be done to remedy the lack of knowledge, the veteran paused.

"We need to take a hard look at what the basics are," Stenson said. "We need to get back to the basics of education and then worry about the fancy things."

The responsibility to pass along the memories falls on parents as well as schools, said Tom Bock, former national commander of the American Legion. The Vietnam veteran has a tough time finding WWII survivors these days, with many of them in nursing homes and senior centers. When Bock does encounter a vet from the "Greatest Generation," he makes sure to sidle up to them at a dinner or meeting and listen to their stories.

"As they always say, if you forget history you're doomed to repeat it," he said.

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USS Arizona survivors Lauren Bruner, far left, and Donald Stratton, center, visit the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., on July 20, 2017. To the far right is Stratton's wife, Velma.
MEREDITH TIBBETTS/STARS AND STRIPES

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