Who was Joe George?

Re­mem­ber him—and Pearl Har­bor

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE -

HE WAS a boatswain’s mate sec­ond class as­signed to a re­pair ship in the U.S. Navy that fate­ful Sun­day, Dec. 7, 1941. He knew how to obey or­ders and when to ig­nore them. The Amer­i­can mil­i­tary may one day use ro­bots in ac­tion, but they’ll al­ways have to have hu­man min­ders. Just for this sort of thing.

Joe George’s bold ac­tion would save the lives of six of his fel­low sailors caught in the sneak at­tack on Pearl Har­bor on that date, which still lives in in­famy. The phrase was used by a great pres­i­dent—Franklin D. Roo­sevelt—to de­scribe that act of pre­med­i­tated ag­gres­sion.

Now, all these years later, an­other and very dif­fer­ent pres­i­dent and com­man­der-in-chief told Joe George’s story as he wel­comed three sur­vivors of Pearl Har­bor to the White House the other day—two saved by Joe George of Arkansas.

It’s a story with a lot of heroes and at least one hero­ine—Joe Ann Tay­lor of Cabot, Ark., who’s Joe George’s daugh­ter in­deed. For she never gave up when it came to ask­ing, even de­mand­ing, that her dad’s hero­ism be prop­erly rec­og­nized. And now it has been, even if Joe Ann Tay­lor had to fight her way through an army of bu­reau­crats swathed in red tape to get her own mis­sion ac­com­plished.

The cur­rent pres­i­dent rec­og­nized Don­ald Strat­ton and Lau­ren Bruner at a cer­e­mony at the White House, both of whom had been aboard the doomed bat­tle­ship USS Ari­zona. “As Lau­ren and Don would tell you,” the pres­i­dent said, “they are here be­cause one man, Joe George, stopped at noth­ing to save them. Joe George res­cued six men that day. He is no longer with us but [we will] al­ways honor and re­mem­ber a man . . . whose courage knew no lim­its. His name will go down in his­tory . . . . Joe Ann, thank you for in­spir­ing our na­tion by telling the story of your fa­ther—a true pa­triot . . . . a man that goes down, re­ally, in the his­tory with the Ari­zona, and a to­tal hero.”

And what a story it is. Amidst the flames, with his own smaller ves­sel, the Vestal, con­nected to a great ship that would soon go down in flames, Joe George be­gan by fol­low­ing or­ders and cut­ting the lines to the Ari­zona. Just as he was or­dered and in­deed been trained to do. But then he saw the men atop one of the Ari­zona’s tow­ers and couldn’t bring him­self to cut the fi­nal line and send them to sure death. The very im­age of a fight­ing, brawl­ing sailor right out of the sto­ry­books, he wasn’t about to obey or­ders this time, not when his fel­low sailors’ lives were at stake.

Grab­bing a rope, he hurled it across the wa­tery depths—once, twice, again and again till it fi­nally snagged, caught, and some­how held. The al­ready bat­tered and burned sailors who’d been trapped mo­ments be­fore se­cured what had lit­er­ally be­come their life­line, and then, hand over hand, be­gan to make their way across to the prom­ise of safety. Dan­gling there 45 feet above the flam­ing wa­ters, they some­how made it along the 75-foot­long weighted rope be­fore the lines were fi­nally sev­ered. Talk about nar­row es­capes, they made it, if just barely.

RES­CUED sailor Don­ald Strat­ton would write a mem­oir about the ex­pe­ri­ence with the fit­ting ti­tle All the Gal­lant Men: An Amer­i­can Sailor’s First­hand Ac­count

of Pearl Har­bor. He writes in his own un­in­hib­ited style, throw­ing cau­tion to the winds: “Had Joe George not stood up for us—had he not been a rebel and re­fused to cut the line con­nect­ing the Vestal to the Ari­zona—we would have been cooked to death on that plat­form. If any­one de­served a Medal of Honor that day, in my opin­ion, it was him. And I know at least five oth­ers who would sec­ond that.”

Joe Ann Tay­lor re­calls her heroic fa­ther as a mod­est man who would have been sur­prised by the well-de­served honor he re­ceived at last:

“He wasn’t the kind of per­son who ever sought at­ten­tion,” she says. “He’d be grate­ful, I’m sure, that some­body was rec­og­niz­ing his hero­ics.” As for her own reaction to all the fan­fare of a White House re­cep­tion, she says she’d found it “very mov­ing and very in­spir­ing. I’m enor­mously grate­ful that my fa­ther’s story is be­ing told.”

Just as all of us should be grate­ful to her for see­ing that it was told. At last.

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