WASHINGTON – An American hero is finally getting recognition 76 years after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
Ahead of Thursday’s anniversary, the secretary of the U.S. Navy posthumously awarded the Bronze Star with valor to Chief Petty Officer Joe George, who died in 1996. The news comes five months after Fox News interviewed one of five living USS Arizona survivors, Donald Stratton, who urged the Navy to recognize George’s heroic actions that day.
George is credited with saving at least six sailors aboard USS Arizona as it was sinking after being struck several times by Japanese planes during the attack at Pearl Harbor.
Rear Adm. Matthew J. Carter, deputy commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, presented the medal to George's daughter, Joe Ann Taylor, during a ceremony at the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor. Observing the ceremony will be four of the five remaining USS Arizona survivors.
In addition to Chief George's Bronze Star, the navy secretary also awarded the Silver Star Medal to Lt. Aloysious H. Schmitt for his actions at Pearl Harbor while serving on the battleship USS Oklahoma, the Navy said in a statement.
"The presentation of the medals is not only appropriate but simply the right thing to do," said Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer. "One of my highest priorities is to honor the service and sacrifice of our sailors, marines, civilians and family members and it is clear that Lt. Schmitt and Chief George are heroes whose service and sacrifice will stand as an example for current and future service members."
Donald Stratton and Lauren Bruner, another Arizona survivor, lobbied hard for George to be recognized. Both traveled to Washington, D.C., with Pearl Harbor survivors over the summer to meet President Donald Trump in the White House and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at the Pentagon.
In August, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., introduced a resolution honoring Pearl Harbor hero George for rescuing six injured sailors from the sinking USS Arizona.
The resolution was cosponsored by U.S. Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., Mike Lee, R-Utah, Tom Cotton, R-Ark., Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo.
“Joe George is an American hero and deserves this long-awaited honor,” Gardner said. “Veterans like Joe George and Donald Stratton are the best this country has to offer and I thank God every day for Americans like them.”
In July, Arizona survivor Donald Stratton recalled the horror he experienced by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941.
“We got hit with the big bomb and that exploded like a million pounds of ammunition. The fireball went about 60, 70 feet in the air,” said Stratton, in an interview with Fox News before his visit to Washington.
“The explosion could have taken us away, but it didn't and thank God we made it across,” he added.
Stratton told the story of the man who passed him the vital lifeline to help him and five other USS Arizona sailors make it to safety.
Trapped aboard the sinking Arizona, Stratton and the others managed to escape the carnage, which killed 1,177 of his shipmates, with the help of a fellow sailor who threw them a lifeline from his own ship moored next to Arizona.
With burns over 60 percent of his body, Stratton had to escape his burning warship.
“We proceeded to go hand over hand across the line about 70 feet,” said Stratton. Today, he doesn’t have fingerprints and carries scars across his body, a daily reminder of the horrors he endured at Pearl Harbor.
The toughest part was reaching the middle of the sagging line stretched across the two ships, and climbing up to the other ship.
“He kept saying, "Come on sailor! You can make it," recalled Stratton about his rescuer, who remained a mystery for 60 years.
The man who rescued Stratton and his fellow sailors that day: Joe George.
In his book, "All the Gallant Men," Stratton described George as "perhaps the strongest man in the harbor, an All-Navy Boxer."
Stratton says George disobeyed his captain's order and threw Stratton the line that would save his life.
"It was kind of surreal. You grow up with your dad thinking of him as dad; you're not used to thinking of him as a hero," said George’s daughter, Joe Ann Taylor, in a statement. "But it's a wonderful story and I'm quite proud of him. Plus I've gotten to know the men he saved and have developed a real bond with the Stratton and Bruner families."
In an oral history documenting the Pearl Harbor attack conducted by the University of North Texas in 1978, George said on Dec. 7 he was settling down to read the Sunday newspaper when the General Quarters alarm was sounded. That's when he realized there was an attack underway. After seeing a Japanese plane going down, his training kicked in and he began to act.
With Japanese torpedoes striking Arizona, George recalled that the first thing he did, with help from several of his shipmates, was remove the awning covering the guns so that Vestal could fight back. Then he ran across the deck from fire to fire to help put them out.
There were "people over on the Arizona that were trying to get off, and there was fire all around," George said. "I threw a line over."
Stratton's granddaughter, Nikki, says she owes her life, in addition to her grandfather's, to that young sailor's heroic actions.
“We have four generations here because of that man. We have 14 people in our family who wouldn’t necessarily be here without Joe George,” said Nikki Stratton.
“We just kept asking, asking and asking and finally someone was able to dig through some of the archives and some of the interviews of the sailors about what happened that day and we found the name Joe George,” she said.
His family asked the Navy to investigate his rescue and dig up interviews from the sailors who were at Pearl Harbor.
In 2001, Donald Stratton was attending his 60th reunion of Pearl Harbor survivors when he learned the identity of the man who rescued him. Sadly, Stratton never had a chance to thank his hero for saving his life. Joe George died in 1996.
“He saved six people's lives and he didn't get anything,” said Stratton in July. “Somebody in Washington should have the guts and honor to take care of that.”
“It is a wonderful thing my father did. I am always overwhelmed by the story,” George’s daughter said. “Finding out what he did and how he did it – he did his duty, and it’s a shame he has never been recognized for it.”
The Stratton family has set up a website, USS Arizona Final Salute, to help defray costs of the trip to Washington and raise money for other USS Arizona survivors to attend a future reunion in Hawaii in December.