By Richard Rooker
They came mostly because they needed a job, these boys of Pearl Harbor — Don Stratton and Lauren Bruner. The Great Depression denied them work, so at 19 and 21 they and so many others enlisted in the military. It offered employment, a paycheck, a chance to see the world, and an opportunity to serve the country they loved. Those life circumstances combined with that opportunity put Stratton and Bruner on a collision course with Dec. 7, 1941.
They have come back now — 76 years later — these two of the few remaining survivors of that day of infamy to honor, respect and remember their deceased military mates. So many gone; so few alive.
“We’re not the heroes. The heroes of Pearl Harbor are on that ship,” said Don Stratton, one of five remaining survivors of the Arizona pointing across the harbor to the sunken battleship.
Ray Emory, another survivor who lives in Hawaii but who did not attend the commemoration, has come to Pearl Harbor often across the decades to serve his country again and again by dedicating his life to identifying the unknown dead from that horrible day in American history.
And four Warsaw 7th graders — Keller Bailey, Jason Benyousky, Geoffrey Hochstetler and Ryun Hoffert — have come to Pearl Harbor, too, to meet, honor, respect and remember these men by telling the story they researched across the past year — the story of Stratton and Bruner and Emory and a boatswain’s mate, second class named Joe George, now deceased.
“Coming to Pearl Harbor has been humbling for me because we’ve been able to see people who were here 76 years ago on one of the most important days in our history. Being here helps bring that day to life and make it real,” said Benyousky.
Bailey, Benyousky, Hochstetler and Hoffert selected the topic of Pearl Harbor for a National History Day project. Their research took them deeper into the historic event than they imagined. Across the year, they read Don Stratton’s memoir All the Gallant Men and interviewed Stratton and Emory by phone.
They learned that Stratton and Brunner are alive today because Joe George saw them trapped on the foremast of the burning and sinking USS Arizona. George threw them a line from his ship, the Vestal, against the orders of a superior officer who wanted to get the Vestal away from Arizona. Stratton, Bruner, and four others roped to safety thanks to George’s defiant act.
They learned they could compose a ten-minute performance portraying men now seven times older than they, and tell their story so that younger generations might honor, respect, and remember that day, these men.
“Playing Joe George in our performance was an honor for me because he was strong, brave, and fearless,” said Hochstetler. “He stood up to a superior officer and risked his career to save six men. He had real courage.”
They learned they could try to make an impact by meeting and lobbying Congressman Jim Banks to champion an effort to award Joe George a medal for his courage.
“We wanted to help Joe George get a medal any way we could because we respect his dignity in saving six lives that day,” said Bailey. “In respect to him, we wanted to share his story and Don Stratton’s and Lauren Bruner’s, too.”
They learned that Ray Emory’s efforts to identify the remains of the unknown dead of Pearl Harbor often defied the wishes of superiors in the navy. One of those formerly unknown sailors killed that day but now known thanks to Emory was Hoosier George Wilcox whose remains are being returned to Indiana this week for interment in a marked grave to the deep appreciation of his relatives. In Emory’s house a chart keeps track of those identified and those yet to be identified.
“One more checked off,” said Emory.
“This is my second time meeting Ray,” said Hoffert. “I’ve talked with him on the phone, too. He is a good friend of mine. I admire him because even at 96, he fights to remember the unknown soldiers who died at Pearl Harbor, and he doesn’t let anyone stop him from achieving his goal.”
Over the past two days in Hawaii, these four local students have visited Emory in his home, attended the 76th anniversary commemoration ceremonies at Pearl Harbor, and performed their NHD skit for all three survivors and their closest relatives.
“It’s important to tell this story because if people forget, no one will know the story of Pearl Harbor,” said Bailey.