Granddaughter of Pearl Harbor survivor says new USS Arizona submarine honors the past and embraces the present

Female Inspecting Weld on Arizona SSN 803 Sonar System
Courtesy Ashley Cowan
Angela Goodhart inspects the sonar system unit for the U.S.S. Arizona submarine (SSN 803) currently under construction, July 2021.

On what she calls the worst day of her life, Nikki Stratton said she received an incredible gift. It was at the funeral for her grandfather, Donald Stratton, who had passed away at his home in Colorado Springs in 2020 at the age of 97, decades after surviving the attack on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The Secretary of the Navy spoke during the service, then pulled Stratton aside to name her the ship sponsor of the Navy’s new submarine, the first to carry the name Arizona since the attack.

“To be a ship sponsor is truly a unique thing that most probably don't understand and don't know about,” said Stratton. “They help develop the ship's culture. They participate in all the great milestones both in the building process and then the christening (and the) commissioning.”

As the ship’s sponsor, Straton fills a unique role. She said the idea of a sponsor was a way to get the wives and children involved in the Navy when women were not allowed to be involved in military affairs.

“A female sponsor is named for every ship in the United States Navy,” she said. “They continue on with the ship or the submarine for the rest of its lifecycle. So, I will continue with the submarine probably until it is decommissioned in the next 50-55 years.”

As part of what’s known as the keel laying ceremony, her initials were welded into a keel plate, which is then affixed inside of the submarine for the entirety of its lifecycle.

“I was a little bit more determined and unique. I actually wanted to weld my own initials in there. It's never been done by a sponsor before,” said Stratton. She took a welding class from a local artist in Denver, then she went to Rhode Island for the ceremony.

“Most keel layings are very, very small, about 15 people. The USS Arizona probably had upwards of 500 there, and that does not include some of the workers that had stopped working and actually witnessed the keel laying,” said Stratton. “It'll also have an original piece of USS Arizona welded to that plate so that there's old and new together.”

The honor carried huge personal significance because of what her grandfather went through so many years earlier

“I was actually learning about Pearl Harbor when I was in fourth grade in Colorado Springs. My grandfather came to visit, and I climbed up into his lap,” Stratton, who lives west of Denver, recalled. “He had a ginormous battleship tattooed on his chest. So I'd point at his battleship and I'd say, ‘Grandpa, grandpa, tell me about your boat.’” 

Stratton said it was not only a bonding experience, it developed her love of history.

Donald Stratton was a 19-year-old Seaman First Class in the Navy when his ship, the USS Arizona, was bombed along with several other US battleships in Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941.

Donald suffered burns over two-thirds of his body, but he survived the attack that catapulted the U.S. into World War II. In 2016, he told CPR News about the harrowing scene aboard the ship as more than a thousand crew members tried to get away from the inferno.

"We had no escape there down the hatches, or down the ladder because everything was so hot you couldn't hardly do anything. One gentleman jumped out, and I tried to close the hatch and got burned pretty bad. But (I) just pulled the skin off my arms and threw it down there because it was in the way."

Donald narrowly escaped death that day by hauling himself hand-over-hand across a 70-foot-long rope to another ship, even though the skin on his hands had burned off.

Courtesy National Park Service/U.S.S. Arizona Memorial Photo Collection
The USS Arizona burning. Donald Stratton's battle station is circled.

For his granddaughter, a new submarine named after the USS Arizona is a tribute to that moment in time. The submarine isn’t scheduled to be finished until 2026, but the keel-laying ceremony was held on Pearl Harbor Day last year.

“We felt that it was a perfect kind of segue from the original battleship into this new submarine, and that, when something dies, when something like the battleship kind of goes dark, we can kind of usher in this new era for the USS Arizona while honoring the past.” said Stratton, “I think that is kind of the line that we're finding ourselves in making sure we're doing things that not only allow for a new generation of sailor to kind of take a hold of the Arizona but knowing where they came from with the original battleship. We kind of are interweaving these two things together, which is really developing a very unique culture for the Arizona.”

There is now a memorial above the hull of the USS Arizona battleship which sank after the attack. It is the final resting place for the more than 900 sailors who died, including 32 from Colorado.

“There are quite a few photos of my grandfather out there,” said Stratton, “And as the Arizona starts becoming an active naval ship with the new submarine, I do believe they are going to add an exhibit specific to that.”

Right now, the submarine remains under construction 

USS Arizona Submarine Construction
Courtesy: Ashley Cowan
Sunlight from an open bay door casts light on the stern unit for the new USS Arizona (SSN-803) submarine under construction, in March 2022.

The Arizona’s commander is Tom Digan, overseeing about 40 active crew members.

“A lot of them are nuclear engineers because one of the first things that goes into the creation of a nuclear sub is actually the nuclear engine, the nuclear reactor. They work on getting that together. The fact that we have crew members now actively learning, creating culture, developing curriculum for new sailors when they come in is truly phenomenal.”

Once completed, Stratton hopes to take a ride on the submarine to better understand what the sailors’ daily lives will be like.

As for the submarine’s christening, when a bottle of champagne is traditionally struck across the bow, Stratton has something special in mind. 

“The first bottle for me will be root beer, and that will be in honor of all of the sailors that came before. So my grandfather, all of the survivors of Arizona, I would say about 90% of them drank root beer from the time they were in the hospital recovering to the day they died because it settled their stomach with all the medicine. They just developed a love for root beer,” said Stratton. “There's actually a local place in Gilbert, Arizona, which is the host town for USS Arizona, the submarine, that brews its own root beer. We're actually going to take root beer from the state of Arizona, and that will be the first bottle. 

“Then, the second bottle will, of course, be the traditional champagne.”

Editor’s note: Rachel Estabrook, Michelle P. Fulcher, and Chandra Thomas Whitfield contributed to this story.