by Richard Rooker
Planes appeared. Bombs fell. Ships sank. Men died. Dec.7, 1941.
Most Americans know the story of that “date which will live in infamy.” Many know that one armor-piercing bomb struck the U.S.S. Arizona and penetrated the ship to the level of her magazine before exploding. The collective blast of that bomb and the ship’s ordinance sent the Arizona to the bottom of the shallow harbor. Most Americans know that story. Or should.
Here is a part most do not.
At the height of the attack, flames trapped six Arizona sailors atop the tower of her foremast. The men had no way out, nowhere to go. Japanese planes still attacked. Harbor waters blazed. Smoke filled the sky. Flames climbed the ladder leading to the platform upon which the sailors stood. Arizona was sinking quickly. No way out.
Enter Joe George.
Aboard the U.S.S. Vestal, a repair ship tied to the Arizona, the commanding officer ordered Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Joe George to cut the lines to the lost ship. But George spotted the six stranded sailors. He believed he could reach the men by throwing to them a “monkey’s fist,” a balled, thin line of rope attached to a stronger line. Perhaps, just perhaps, the men could rope across to the Vestal.
No, said the ship’s captain. The men were lost. The Vestal’s own crew was in danger and must get away from the sinking ship.
No, replied Joe George. As long as he might be able to reach the men with a rope, he would try.
Against orders, George did try. He succeeded.
All six men climbed hand over hand, 40 feet above water, 70 feet across from ship to ship to the relative safety of the Vestal.
Today, only five Arizona sailors survive. Two – Don Stratton and Lauren Bruner – are men rescued by Joe George. Tomorrow, on the 76th anniversary of the attack that thrust America into World War II, Stratton and Bruner, both in their late 90s, will be at Pearl Harbor to witness the posthumous awarding of a Bronze Star with a “V” for Valor to Joe George for his defiant, life-saving service.
Four Warsaw seventh graders will be in attendance as well.
Keller Bailey, Jason Benyousky, Geoffery Hochstetler and Ryun Hoffert played a small part in the recognition Joe George will receive. Researching Pearl Harbor for last year’s National History Day contest, the boys came across the Joe George story. They contacted Stratton and his son, Randy, who have been trying to gain a medal for George for the past 16 years.
Last summer, Bailey attended a town hall meeting in Warsaw held by Congressman Jim Banks, who serves on the Armed Services Committee. During Q & A, Bailey brought the Joe George issue to Banks’s attention. Since then, Banks and his office have worked to help bring recognition to George for his valor. Banks authored H.R. Resolution 582 honoring “the heroism of Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Joseph Leon George in saving the lives of six sailors on Dec. 7, 1941.”
The four students will attend the commemoration ceremony, meet with the Pearl Harbor Survivors and perform their National History Day skit honoring the men. The survivors are seeking permission for the students to accompany them out to the Arizona for a private memorial.
Tomorrow in the harbor along Battleship Row, a barge will sail adjacent to the sunken Arizona. A wreath will be thrown from her deck symbolically representing the monkey’s fist thrown by George. Three generations – ranging from Stratton and Bruner to Stratton’s son, Randy, and Joe George’s daughter, Joe Ann Taylor, to Warsaw students Bailey, Benyousky, Hochstetler and Hoffert – will bear witness to an act of heroism seven decades past with currents of meaning rippling through to today. Remember Pearl Harbor.