USS Arizona survivors visit memorial for first time

(Via Ho’okele News)

Donald Stratton greets a young fan as his wife looks on.. PHOTO COURTESY OF MWR MARKETING

Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Morale, Welfare & Recreation

The Dec. 7 ceremonies of a few weeks ago were solemn reminders of one of the most difficult days in U.S. history. But on a cool Friday afternoon two days earlier, two survivors of that day got to privately see for the first time a memorial they didn’t know existed.

Donald Stratton and Lauren Bruner were aboard the USS Arizona on the fateful day of Dec. 7, 1941, and were in Hawaii to take part in the many observances marking that fateful event. The days leading up to this Dec. 7 consisted of press conferences, interviews, photo shoots and audience requests. But for a couple hours, the two veterans were able to visit a place honoring their shipmates’ memories with just family and friends … and an impromptu group of well-wishers.

Jessie Higa, a guide for Morale, Welfare & Recreation’s (MWR) historical tours, was afforded the opportunity to host the survivors and their friends during their time in Hawaii. By chance, on one of the MWR tours, Higa took patrons to the Navy Club Memorial, dedicated to the USS Arizona.

“I mentioned to (Bruner and Stratton) the first memorial rock and lookout near a banyan tree on Ford Island that overlooks the USS Arizona Memorial,” said Higa. “I was shocked to learn that they had never been to this location. They were very interested in seeing it.”

The tribute, which Higa describes as the first USS Arizona Memorial, was dedicated in 1955. It is a 25-ton Hawaiian lava rock (pohaku) that was brought down from the mountains and is displayed with an ornate bronze plaque affixed to it. The inscription honors the 1177 sailors and marines killed in action aboard the ship. The rock sits majestically on a cliff overlooking the current memorial, in a private housing area not accessible to the public. Higa coordinated the visit and also contacted a friend who lives on the island, Katrina Luksovsky, to rally the neighborhood.

“The survivors requested to have their photos taken at this location and welcomed the idea to have a private gathering with the Ford Island residents,” says Higa. “I needed to figure out a convenient way to get everyone in their party to Ford Island, and that’s when MWR’s Information, Tickets and Travel (ITT) offered their assistance.”

ITT’s tour bus brought the survivors, family and close friends to Ford Island and to the site. From this location, everyone could view the later memorial from a vantage point many don’t get to see. In one quietly stirring moment, Stratton turned to the ship and saluted his comrades who were entombed just offshore. He then sat on a concrete bench with his wife, and they spent the next 15 minutes holding hands, reflecting and having a private conversation.

At about this point the families living on Ford Island could be seen waiting at a distance, respectfully allowing the group to have their moment alone. Now, as the survivors kindly agreed to meet with everyone, the residents approached, excited about the opportunity to welcome them to the neighborhood. Many took their children out of school early for the chance to meet Bruner and Stratton. Some kids came with history books in hand, hoping to get an autograph.

Lynn Foster, an Army spouse whose family is the only Army household living on Ford Island, said this was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up.

“We’re so grateful to have the privilege to meet them and to share their story with my children,” said Foster. “Living here is an incredible experience, but being able to meet the people who actually made an impact on the rest of history is so incredibly humbling. I’m praying that my children understand the significance of today, and the people that they’re getting to meet, their wives, as well as their children and grandchildren. It’s so important that we pass along their stories to our kids.”

Foster says she and her husband have been trying to educate their kids since they moved to Hawaii this year, in hopes that they appreciate and understand the rich history of the place. “You’re not sure if they fully grasp it, but hopefully being given their autographs, the pictures and whatnot, they can reflect on it. And definitely in ten years they’ll know the importance and the impact of today.”

Many of the others expressed similar thoughts, grateful for the opportunity to meet, shake hands with, and most of all, thank these men for their service.

For their part, the survivors and their families were impressed with how well behaved the children were and very knowledgeable about December 7th’s moment in history. As one of Stratton’s family said, “It was inspiring.”

Higa expressed amazement at how patient and gracious Bruner and Stratton were with everyone. Both spent several moments sharing their stories that were, at times, emotionally overwhelming. Illustrating the gentlemanly manners of days gone by that the men embodied, Stratton — at over 90 years of age — instinctively stood up for ladies as they approached him.

Bruner spent a significant amount of time posing for photos with residents next to the rock. Higa said she couldn’t help but notice how meeting these families touched Bruner’s heart as he laughed with them and shed tears of joy for having been there.

“He kept telling me how shocked he was that he never knew this memorial existed since 1955 as the first memorial to his Sailor and Marine comrades,” said Higa. Bruner took several moments to gaze upon the rock, and then out towards the beautiful view of the more famous memorial.

As the gathering came to an end and the families returned to their homes, Higa reflected on what she witnessed today.

“There were countless moments when we were all moved to tears,” she said. “The children were genuinely interested in listening to the survivors speak. They were as excited as if they were going to meet a famous rock star, but instead of screams of enthusiasm there was humbleness, respect and composure.” Seeing the young ones of today’s generation interact with living figures of history was a moving moment for the parents and Higa. “It brought us all to tears to realize children define these men as their true and inspiring heroes.”

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