Vet to receive posthumous Bronze Star for heroics at Pearl Harbor

Chief Boatswain’s Mate Joseph George saved the lives of six men during the Japanese's attack on the naval hub

Wyatt Olson
Stars and Stripes

FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii — A sailor who saved the lives of six men at Pearl Harbor will receive a posthumous award for valor during this week’s 76th annual commemoration of the Dec. 7, 1941, surprise Japanese attack.

Chief Boatswain’s Mate Joseph George, who died in 1996, will be awarded the Bronze Star with “V” device for valor for his actions aboard the repair ship USS Vestal, the Navy announced Friday.

The medal — the nations’ fourth-highest award for combat actions — will be presented by Rear Adm. Matthew Carter, deputy commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, to George’s daughter, Joe Ann Taylor, during a Thursday ceremony at the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor.

The Navy also recently announced it would award the Silver Star — a medal that honors gallantry in combat — to Lt. j.g. Aloysius Schmitt for his actions while serving aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma. Schmitt died on the ship while helping other sailors escape.

“The presentation of the medals is not only appropriate but simply the right thing to do,” Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer said in a Navy statement. “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.”

George was officially commended in 1942 by his commander after the attack, but he was not awarded a medal, the Navy said.

Two sailors who credit George with saving them on the Arizona — Lauren Bruner and Don Stratton — petitioned for him to be presented a medal.

In his memoir, “All the Gallant Men,” published last year, Stratton described how George ignored an order to cut the lines that tethered the Arizona to the Vestal so that the repair ship could head to open waters. The Arizona lost 1,177 crewmembers during the attack, and the Vestal lost seven men.

“We called to Joe through a seam in the smoke, motioning for him to throw us a monkey’s fist, which was a lightweight heaving line knotted around a metal ball and attached to a thicker rope,” Stratton wrote.

George, who was “perhaps the strongest man in the harbor, an All-Navy boxer,” made a successful throw on the third try, Stratton wrote.

As Stratton and five other badly burned sailors prepared to move hand-over-hand on the rope to the repair ship, he saw George in a “heated” debate with his captain. Stratton believes to this day that the captain was chewing George out for retethering to the Arizona.

In the 2016 memoir, Stratton lamented the failure by him and others to convince the Navy to award George a medal.

“The biggest reason is that the Navy doesn’t want to honor someone who disobeyed his superior officer,” Stratton wrote. “But had he been a more compliant person, more respectful of authority, I wouldn’t have lived to tell the story. None of us who climbed across that line to the Vestal would have.”

Stratton never saw George again after that day.

George’s daughter said her father didn’t talk much about the attack or any of World War II until near the end of his life.

“It was kind of surreal,” she said in the Navy statement. “You grow up with your dad thinking of him as dad; you’re not used to thinking of him as a hero.”

George spent 20 years in the Navy, retiring in 1955 as a chief petty officer.

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