The ship was burning and Donald Stratton and Lauren Bruner thought they were going to die.
Bruner already had been wounded aboard the USS Arizona, taking bullets to a leg. He was bleeding badly. Stratton was burned on his back, face and leg. Part of his ear was missing. Japanese Zeros buzzed above Pearl Harbor.
Through the smoke and haze, Stratton saw Joe George standing on the deck of the USS Vestal — a repair ship moored next to the Arizona. George had been ordered to cut the lines between the two ships as the battleship was sinking. But Stratton and Bruner were yelling at him to throw them a rope. A lifeline. An officer ordered George to let the men be.
He threw the rope anyway.
It was caught and secured to the Arizona, and Stratton and Bruner began scooting along it, hand over hand, for 75 feet. It felt much longer.
“As we got closer, he was standing there nodding his head yelling, ‘You can make it! You can make it! You can make it!” Stratton said in a phone interview Monday from Hawaii.
The two did make it — along with four others on the Arizona. Two eventually succumbed to injuries, but those who survived credit George with saving them. Despite his act, he never was awarded a medal.
That will change Thursday.
His family will see him honored at Pearl Harbor on the 76th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Dec. 7, 1941. At around sunset, Rear Adm. Matthew Carter, deputy commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, will present the Bronze Star Medal to George’s daughter, Joe Ann Taylor, at the USS Arizona memorial — reversing a past decision by the Navy to not give him a medal for disobeying that order. It’s one of the nation’s highest awards given.
Both Bruner, 97, and Stratton, 95, will be in attendance as well. George died in 1996.
“It means everything,” Taylor said. “It’s a wonderful, exciting thing because it validates everything we know about my father.”
The process to get George the medal began in 2002, according to Randy Stratton, Donald’s son. But progress was sluggish — until last year.
On the 75th anniversary of the attack a year ago, the Strattons met Matt Previts, an officer in naval intelligence. Stratton and Bruner recounted George’s actions, and Previts said he would help to “try and work things from the inside.”
They flew to Washington. They met with four senators, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and President Trump earlier this year. Previts said having them all hear George’s story told directly from those he saved sped things along.
“It went from a proposal to being personal,” Previts said. “That was the moment. It was a real story, and I think everyone recognized Joe had acted heroically.”
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) introduced the proclamation in August and, with five cosponsors — both Republican and Democratic — it passed unanimously in the Senate in September. Flake called the honor “long overdue.”
“It has been a privilege to join USS Arizona survivors Donald Stratton and Lauren Bruner — both heroes in their own right — and the families of Joe and the men whose lives he saved, to help secure this honor for Joe George,” Flake said in a statement.
Randy Stratton notes that “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for what Joe George did. I have him to thank for saving my father.”
George, who was born in Georgia, joined the Navy when he was 20. It was 1935 and he’d already turned down a college football scholarship, Taylor said. She said he instead went to boot camp, trained in Norfolk, Va., and was soon stationed in Pearl Harbor.
The surprise attack by the Japanese that Sunday morning lasted for about two hours, and when it was finished, more than 2,400 people were dead and about 1,000 were wounded. Almost half of those who died at Pearl Harbor were on the Arizona. The Vestal also sank that day.
Daniel Martinez, chief historian at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, said George was “a big, strong, athletic man” and was known around the base for his boxing prowess. He said it wasn't a surprise that George would’ve been able to make that rope toss between the ships amid the chaos of the attack.
“George wasn’t overweight,” he said. “He was muscle.”
Martinez said the six men’s flight by rope to the Vestal is one of “the three great escape stories” that emerged from the attack.
Taylor, however, knew very little about her dad’s life in the Navy or his heroics on Dec. 7.
She knew him as a “doting” father and a loving husband who was married for 52 years. George served in the Navy for 20 years, retiring as a chief petty officer in 1955.
Taylor said her dad never talked about Pearl Harbor until the late 1970s — about the same time her husband came home after serving in the Vietnam War. Taylor said the two seemed to bond over their service, and George began to tell her husband about that day.
But she said George was a humble man who probably would not want all of the attention he’s getting. She said he’d probably just say that “he was following his conscience” when he disobeyed an order and threw the rope.
Bruner, who got emotional during a phone interview, grew quiet for a moment. His caregiver, Ed Hoeschen, said Bruner fought back tears before saying the medal should’ve been given to George a long time ago.
“It’s about damn time,” Bruner said.