A ceremony Thursday in the memorial atop the grave of more than 1,100 American sailors lost on the sunken USS Arizona will honor a hero who saved six of his shipmates in the Pearl Harbor attack 76 years ago.
On December 7, 1941, Joe George was a boatswain’s mate second class on the Vestal, a maintenance ship attached to the USS Arizona battleship. George had turned down a football scholarship at the University of Georgia and joined the Navy when he was 20 years old.
As the attack on Pearl Harbor unfolded, he spotted men trapped in a burning tower aboard the destroyed USS Arizona and threw them a line. Donald Stratton and Lauren Bruner are two of those six men who climbed hand-over-hand along the lifeline to safety on the Vestal.
Nearly half of the American casualties in the attack were sailors aboard the USS Arizona. The men George saved were the last to escape the ship.
But he didn’t receive recognition for his actions that day, and Stratton’s son decided his story needed to be told.
Randy Stratton reached out to George’s widow. “I promised Thelma George way back when, I told her I was going to get her husband a medal. I called her every December 7 from the 60th anniversary on. I told her Lauren and my dad are still here because of her husband.”
George’s daughter, Joe Ann Taylor, joined Stratton in years of writing and calling lawmakers to ensure that her father was recognized. Senators thought it would be a simple request, but the Navy refused again and again.
So many years had passed, Taylor and Stratton were told. There was also missing paperwork and a lack of corroborating accounts, so the efforts to secure a medal for George did not move forward. The Navy also said that by extending a lifeline to the sailors, George disobeyed an order to cut the Vestal away from to the burning USS Arizona.
Eventually, Randy Stratton and Taylor brought the issue to Sens. Tim Cotton from Arkansas and Jeff Flake from Arizona, who took the request to the White House. The surviving members of the USS Arizona crew met with President Trump in July, where they discussed George’s actions. In September, Sen. Flake introduced a resolution honoring George which passed unanimously.
Taylor received the news that the Navy would honor her father with a Bronze Star for Valor on this anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack just before Thanksgiving, making sure that Stratton, 95, and Bruner, 97, can make the trip to Hawaii for the ceremony along with the three other surviving members of the USS Arizona crew.
When the Navy reviewed her father’s record there was nothing showing that he had disobeyed commands that day, Taylor said.
George did not talk much about his experience before his death in 1996, but he did sit down to give his full account for an oral history project at the University of North Texas in 1978.
“I hope I didn’t exaggerate about myself,” he said near the end of the interview. “I didn’t mean to make myself look good. But I did perform well, I thought, after it was all over.”