Heroes of the Harbor: Joe George

December 11, 2016

Today, the USS Arizona sits at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, serving as a grave for the 1,117 crew members who were lost when the ship was bombed during the December 7th, 1941 attack. We focus so heavily on the tragedies of Pearl Harbor, such as the Arizona, that we sometimes overlook the stories of heroics that occurred  through this terrible tragedy. Take, for instance, the story of Joe George, a boatswain’s mate second class on the USS Vestal maintenance ship. Joe wasn’t destined to man any 50-caliber anti-aircraft gun nor was he at a high enough rank to bark out orders – so how is it Joe George earned the title of Pearl Harbor hero?

The Mighty Are Stricken

During the 1941 attack,Vestal was tied to the USS Arizona as the larger Pennsylvania-class battleship came under fire from Japanese bombers. Men like Joe were there as maintenance men, not to fight, but that didn’t stop his heroic instincts from kicking in. After the first bomb rocked the harbor, Joe roused his fellow crew members, and it wasn’t long after that the neighboring Arizona was struck, blowing up an ammunition store.

The mighty vessel was engulfed in flames, leading to Joe’s superior officer ordering that Vestal be cut loose from the Arizona. Joe knew that would doom every sailor aboard the battleship. The Arizona was beyond saving and had already began to sink when the officer issued the orders to save Vestal, but something kept Joe from cutting the line and ensuring the safety of his shipmates.

Joe George

Wartime Heroics

After given orders to sever the Vestal from the Arizona, Joe noticed six crew members stuck on a tower in the battleship, injured and calling for help. Unable to leave others behind, Joe ignored his superior’s orders and instead threw a weighted heaving line to the stranded Arizona sailors. Thanks to Joe's actions, the injured men all made it to safety aboard Vestal.

Despite saving six men, Joe’s story remained untold and unrecognized. Though he disobeyed direct orders from a senior officer, he did so to ensure that fellow sailors he could save wouldn't perish in the sinking behemoth. Joe was recognized as a hero by those he saved, including Lauren Bruner and Donald Stratton, but he never received official honors for going one extra step to keep six men alive.

An Unsung Song of Heroism

In 1996, Joe George passed away, mostly keeping the events of December 7th, 1941 to himself. In an attempt to provide the heroic sailor a posthumous medal, Stratton, Bruner, and Joe’s daughter, Joe Ann Taylor, began writing letters to various officials.

It's now 75 years later, and Joe George is still without official recognition for his simple heroic act that saved the lives of six undoubtedly grateful men. Men who otherwise could have ended up as names etched on the Wall of Remembrance above the sunken wreckage, on the USS Arizona Memorial.

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