Heroes of the Harbor: Joe George

By: Mark Loproto

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.

6 thoughts on “Heroes of the Harbor: Joe George

  1. Marilyn Walsh says:

    My dad Philip J. Walsh was a shipmate and friend of Joe George on the USS Vestal. My dad died in 1981. Over the last 11 years i have been attending USS Vestal reunions around the USA and heard stories from USS Vestal sailors who knew Joe George such as Jack Rininger Sr. from Cleves, Ohio and John Williams from Moberly, Missouri. Many have told me Joe was a tough and rugged guy who was a boxer. He was a good guy who stood out and who told you like it was and you don’t mess with him. I believe this was the strong personality needed to save the 6 Arizona sailors who went on to lead productive lives with wonderful families. I had the honor of talking with 1 of the last of 2 Arizona survivors, Donald Stratton in 2007 who he and son Randy have been trying to get the “Medal of Honor” for Joe from the Navy and Politicians only to be turned down for reasons other than his courageous act during the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor saving the 6 Arizona Sailors. I meet Donald Stratton and family at the 2009 USS Vestal reunion in Colorado Spring, Co. and have been trying to up them with Joe’s much earned Medal. I saw a military document in Joe George’s records ordered at National Archives in St. LOUIS, MO.,which proves Joe is a heroes who deserves the “Medal of Honor.” The document reads exactly,
    “2/24/42: Commended by the Commanding Officer for Outstanding services rendered during the attack on the USS VESTAL by Japanese planes on December 7, 1941. As a member of the deck force, in the forward and after part of the ship, aided men from the USS ARIZONA, which was afire, in gett8 g over to the VESTAL and assisted in this vessel getting clear of the ARIZONA.

    C. YOUNG, Comdr., U.S. Navy, Comdg. (Document Signed by Commander Cassin Young)
    There is also a USS Vestal officer W.T. Singer (signature)”

    This document alone tells of Joe’s “distinguished conduct in action, Outstandi g heroism and utter disregard of his own safety, above and beyond the call of duty, as an enlisted Saor who saved 6 Arizona sailors during the attack on the fleet in Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, by enemy Japanese forces on 7 December 1941.”

    The last of the 2 Arizona survivors Donald Stratton and Lauren Bruner who wrote their experiences on that day of “Infamy” in their books that just came out during the 75th a anniversary, called “All the Gallent Men.” Lauren Bruners book, “Second to the Last to Leave.” Donald and Lauren will be coming to DC along with the George family for the first time ever July 19 to the 23.

    Thank you, Marilyn Walsh-Manfra, Daughter of Joe’s shipmate friend and USS Vestal sailor Philip J. Walsh, USAF retired, DAV life membet, Sr. Vice Commander, Chapter 19, Concord, NH snd VFW Life member

  2. Mark LoProto says:

    I am truly pleased that I could do your father’s actions justice and am even more-so that you saw that he was recognized. In constantly reading up on Pearl Harbor, I come across more and more people that deserve recognition. Your father was one of them.

  3. Joe Ann George Taylor says:

    What a beautiful article about my dad. Someone told me to google my dad’s name & I did to find this wonderful article about my dad. I just returned from the Pearl Harbor Celebrations where I met Don Stratton and Lauren Bruner for the first time. What an emotional experience that was. My dad has seldom been mentioned over the years so it has been glorious to hear his story being told. My husband & I were the guests of the Stratton family who have tried all these years to get my father honored. Thank you for writing this story. It feels so good to know others will know about what he did on that fateful morning. Thank you so much!!!

    Joe Ann George Taylor
    Daughter of Joe George

    1. Marilyn Walsh says:

      LET’S get your dad his much earned “Medal of Honor!” and cut through all the red tape!

      Daughter of USS VESTAL sailor and friend of your dad’s, Philip J. Walsh.
      USAF Retired Veteran, DAV Life member, Sr. Vice Commander, Chapter 19, Concord, NH and VFW Life member and “Golden Veterans Project.”

    2. Gary Fish says:

      My name is Gary Fish, and I am a singer-songwriter from Rhode Island. I watched the documentary on the history ch about your father “Joe George” . It has inspired me to start writing a song about your dad. He was quite the man! Saving those 6 man when he was ordered to untie the Vestal from Arizona. It was a lucky dad for those 6 men that he saved. If Joe wasn’t confined to the Vestal for having a fight the night before in a bar , it would have never happened. Joe George was a hero that day, he saved 6 men’s lives on a dark Sunday’s day! Gfish

      1. VisitPearlHarbor.org says:

        Aloha Gary,
        Thanks for sharing your story. Joe George was indeed an inspiring man, and it’s nice to see that he’s finally getting the recognition he deserves.

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