An amazing and true story set to be told by the World War II Foundation in 2018!
Efforts are currently underway to posthumously award the Medal of Honor to Joe George for his heroic and life-saving efforts on December 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor.
Joe George settled into his bunk in the forward deck of the USS Vestal sometime after 8 o’clock on Dec. 6, 1941.
It wasn’t the place he’d usually choose on a Saturday night when his ship was docked outside Honolulu and crew members had liberty.
George, a boatswain’s mate second class, was confined to the Vestal on this Saturday night. He had been caught fighting with another sailor the night before after a raucous “smoker” — an organized boxing match (which he’d won) — in a Navy recreation center.
On Saturday morning, the Vestal’s captain lit into George, told him he was facing a summary court martial. George was put on report and restricted to the ship. He watched as fellow crewmates boarded a motor launch for a night ashore. He’d been in trouble before, but he knew this time he could land in the brig.
Outside, shadows deepened in the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor. The Vestal, a repair and maintenance ship, sat tied up on the port side of the battleship USS Arizona along Ford Island. The Arizona was undergoing routine upkeep after a week of maneuvers in the Pacific.
On board the Arizona, sailors straggled back from a night on the town, settling into cots and hammocks. Among the crewmen: Lauren Bruner, a fire controlman third class, and Donald Stratton, a seaman first class. Neither man knew Joe George. Neither would have lived through the next day without him.
Her father’s story
Joe Ann Taylor grew up knowing almost nothing about what her dad did during the war. She knew he enlisted in the Navy after turning down a football scholarship at the University of Georgia. She was in the third grade when he retired and most of her memories about his service end with her waving from a dock as her father left on another assignment.
“He never talked to me and my sister about it, ever, and very little to my mother,” Joe Ann said from her home in Cabot, Ark. “He would start to cry when he talked about it. We knew he was on the Vestal … but never did I have the opportunity to listen to what he did.”
She heard his stories from other people and they made her cry.
In 1978, George told stories about his life in the Navy for an oral history program at North Texas State University (known now as the University of North Texas) in Denton, Texas. It may have been the only time he recited the events of his time on the Vestal start to finish in one sitting.
He recalled the details clearly; his account of the Dec. 7 attack was tinged with the chaos that enveloped that day.
“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.”
George had joined the Navy in 1935, partly to show up his older brother, who washed out a year before, and partly for the travel and the steady pay. He was 20 when he reported to Norfolk, Va., for boot camp. From there, he boarded the USS Chaumont, a Navy transport ship bound for Guantanamo Bay, then through the Panama Canal and up the California coast to the Navy base at San Pedro. There, he joined the Vestal.
“I had no glamorous ideas about any Navy,” he said in the Texas interview. “I knew there were battleships. I knew there was tin cans. But I was one of those kids that just lets nature take its course.”
From Mundane to extraordinary
Joe George woke up early on Sunday, Dec. 7. He made his way to the mess hall and plated up eggs, cold French fries and bacon. He ate, picked up a Sunday newspaper and returned to his bunk, still unsure of what the captain would do.
On the Arizona, Donald Stratton was finishing his own breakfast. He had joined the ship a year earlier at the Navy yards in Bremerton, Wash., where the Arizona was being stripped down for war. On maneuvers, Stratton manned one of the 50-foot boats used to tow targets for the Arizona’s big guns.
The day before, he and a buddy had gone ashore on liberty, but his buddy had fallen ill. Stratton gathered a few oranges and headed to sickbay.
Below deck, Lauren Bruner was dressing for church services, which were held on the deck. Bruner had followed his dad into the Navy and, after joining the Arizona, trained as a fire controlman, one of the crew members who helped operate the guns.
On the Vestal, George opened the paper a little before 8 a.m. and was starting to read when he heard the call for general quarters. He leapt off the bunk and ran to look outside.
The first thing he saw was a Japanese plane screaming across the sky. He heard an explosion somewhere in the harbor.
He ran below deck, trying to rouse the rest of the crew. The ship had no loudspeaker system, leaving the men to yell the call for battle stations.
Above the harbor, a line of Japanese bombers dived toward the battleships and dropped their payloads. The ships shuddered as the bombs exploded. Fires erupted. The Vestal was hit, once, twice. Fighter planes strafed the decks.
On the Arizona, Stratton and Bruner raced toward the control station for the anti-aircraft guns, a steel cube on the main mast, one deck above the bridge.
But the planes flew too high overhead. The shells from the guns exploded short of their targets.
Almost 14 minutes had passed since the start of the attack.
George opened up
Joe Ann moved around a lot, the way military kids do. Her dad retired from the Navy and took a job at the Alameda air station on San Francisco Bay. Later, the family moved to Memphis. Along the way, Joe Ann married Gary Taylor, who was a Vietnam veteran.
Slowly, George began to tell his story to his new son-in-law. He revealed snippets each time they talked, reliving his World War II service in short bursts. In time, Gary was able to piece together the events of Dec. 7, 1941.
“He was one of those sailors you read about in the books,” Gary said. “He liked to fight, he liked to drink, he got into trouble sometimes. On the morning of the 7th he was on the Vestal because that’s where he had to be.”
He would disobey an order from a senior officer before the day ended and six men would escape death.
A massive fireball
The bomb exploded in the guts of the Arizona, igniting an ammunition store. The shock wave lifted the battleship out of the water. A fireball engulfed the masts and the control towers. The heat and the shock wave rocked the Vestal.
Stratton and Bruner survived the first rush of fire, but flames covered their bodies. One or two of the men in the tower jumped. Six still lived as the ship, broken in half by the blast, began to sink into the harbor.
Stratton felt his clothes burn away, saw his skin char, felt heat from the deck sear the soles of his shoes. He looked around and spotted a crewman on the Vestal, still tied to the Arizona. One of the other men in the tower waved frantically.
On the Vestal, George was trying to fight fires, but couldn’t keep up. At least two bombs had hit the ship and flames spread after the explosion on the Arizona. The captain and other crew members were blown over the side.
A senior officer wanted to get the Vestal underway, move it back from the sinking Arizona and the flames burning oil in the water’s surface. Then George saw the six men on the Arizona. They were injured badly, trapped, waving, pleading for help as fire raged on the deck beneath them.
An officer yelled at him to cut the Vestal loose. George refused.
The officer repeated the order. The Vestal had been hit hard and if the Arizona sank, the Vestal would go with it.
George ignored the order. He could see the men on the Arizona, could see only one way for them to escape.
He found a weighted heaving line and threw it toward the Arizona.
On the Arizona, the crewmen secured the line. One by one, they began to crawl over to the Vestal, hand over hand, feeling the heat from the flames on the ship and the water.
George watched. His eyes met Stratton’s.
“C’mon kid,” he yelled. “You can do it!”
The Vestal was lower than the Arizona tower, but the line sagged. The men had to work their way down the line, then back up to reach the Vestal’s deck, across about 75 feet. By the time the six men were all across, George had moved on, fighting fires as the ship limped away from the battleships, toward shore.
For a long time, no one knew who had helped save the six Arizona crewmen. One account described an unknown sailor.
“I’m that unknown sailor,” George would tell the North Texas interviewer nearly four decades later. “I’m the guy.”
No medal awarded
Joe George was commended for his actions that day on his Continuous Service Certificate, a record of his time in the Navy, but he never received a medal or any other formal honor for his role in the rescue of the six Arizona sailors.
“He should have the Navy Cross,” said Donald Stratton, one of the six crewmen who escaped the burning control tower. “He saved six people’s lives. Joe saved six lives and he didn’t get crap. As far as he was concerned, he was saving lives. He refused to cut the line no matter what.”
Stratton and Bruner are among the last six Arizona crewmen still alive 75 years after the ship sank. Stratton and his son, Randy, have taken up the cause of securing some sort of medal for Joe George.
“The Navy wants an eyewitness account from the Vestal and can’t get past that he disobeyed an order,” Randy said in a 2014 interview with The Arizona Republic. “The Navy should recognize him for what he did.”
Joe Ann Taylor started writing letters to her senator a year or so ago with the same message. Lots of military kids think their dads were heroes in the war, but Taylor had the word of two veterans who would swear they escaped the burning USS Arizona because of Joe George.
“I’m just utterly amazed at what my father did,” she said. “I think there was an instinct for survival. He went on doing what he was supposed to be doing before he ever stopped.”
As the years wore on, George began to share his story more often. He joined Pearl Harbor survivors’ groups and attended reunions until he died in 1996.
The USS Arizona survivors made George an honorary crew member and told his daughter it was hard to tell a story about the battleship without talking about George.
In 1978, he told the North Texas interviewer he wasn’t always sure what he was doing on Dec. 7, but he did what he thought he had to.
“I’ll tell you, the only thing I could tell you about that day …” he said. “My conscience was my guide.”
This published story is courtesy of AZ Central and the Arizona Republic newspaper (by Shaun McKinnon), and www.azcentral.com, part of the USA Today network.