Anyone who heard the story of Joe George at Pearl Harbor knew at once this was the story of a hero: a young sailor who risked his life in the fiery Japanese ambush to rescue the last six survivors from the sinking USS Arizona.
Joe George should get a medal for what he did, everyone would say.
Strangers who heard the story said it. The men he saved said it.
But for more than seven decades, no one could make it happen.
The Navy commended George for his actions and noted them in his record. For a medal, the Navy wanted an eyewitness account of the incident, corroboration from a senior officer who was aboard the USS Vestal with George on Dec. 7, 1941. Neither could be found.
And there was a hitch in the story: George, a boatswain’s mate second class, disobeyed an order to cut the line between the Vestal, a maintenance ship, and the Arizona. He had spotted the six desperate men on the burning battleship and threw a line to them, ignoring the order to cast off.
The failure to follow orders seemed to stand in the way of George’s medal.
George died in 1996. A few years later, the son of one of the men George rescued took up the cause of the medal.
He called. He wrote letters. He enlisted other Pearl Harbor survivors. He tracked down George’s family and promised George’s widow he would fight to secure recognition for the man who had saved his dad’s life.
George’s daughter, Joe Ann Taylor, joined the campaign. They took it all the way to the White House.
And they did it. On Thursday, a Navy admiral will present Taylor a Bronze Star Medal for Valor, recognizing George posthumously. The ceremony will take place aboard the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, yards from where the story began.
And though George has died, the story continues. His efforts saved six men that day. Now, improbably — 76 years later — of the five USS Arizona survivors still alive, two of them are men George saved.
When Taylor accepts her father’s medal, she won’t be alone. Donald Stratton, 95, and Lauren Bruner, 97, will be standing there with her.
“Whatever medal it is doesn’t matter,” she said. “It was a story that needed to be told. It was a huge part of history, for those men who were true heroes, and it was was my dad who helped them.”
featured: The Arizona Republic
inset: The Arizona Republic