On December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service unleashed a furious surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
There was no declaration of war because the United States was still neutral in World War II. The attack involved more than 350 fighter planes, bombers and torpedo planes launched from six aircraft carriers.
Before it finally ended, the horrific attack resulted in 2,403 Americans killed and 1,178 injured. All eight U.S. Navy battleships at Pearl Harbor were damaged. Four sank.
The Japanese also damaged or sank three cruisers and three destroyers. Plus an anti-aircraft training ship and one minelayer. And they destroyed 188 U.S. aircraft.
Dramatic Rescue Saves Stratton’s Life
A Seaman First Class named Donald Stratton was one of many sailors and officers aboard the USS Arizona on that fateful day.
One million pounds of explosives detonated under his battle station. The 19-year-old suffered burns across two-thirds of his body.
Thanks to a young man aboard the repair ship USS Vestal, Stratton pulled himself hand over hand across a tethered rope. About 50 feet below him, the harbor was a mixture of water and oil. Enemy bullets struck it over and over again.
Once Stratton was rescued and the attack ended, doctors ordered his limbs amputated. But he refused. Eventually, Stratton learned to walk again. And three years later, he returned to the war on a destroyer in the Pacific Ocean.
A Quest to Honor His Rescuer
Even if that were the end of the story, it would be a miraculous one. In fact, Stratton turned his true story into a book titled All the Gallant Men: The First Memoir by a USS Arizona Survivor.
To this day, the USS Arizona is the only battleship sunk at Pearl Harbor that was never raised. It remains at the bottom of the harbor.
But Stratton’s story lives on. Why? Because he refused to forget the person who saved his life.
And 76 years after Pearl Harbor, Stratton finally got his wish. To honor the man who saved sailors from certain death on the sinking USS Arizona.
Petty Officer Rises to the Occasion
Stratton, age 95, is one of only five living survivors from that ship. And he says he owes it to a man named Joseph George.
George was working onboard the repair ship USS Vestal when the attack occurred.
Explosions occurred all around him. Bullets came from many directions. But the second-class petty officer knew his duty.
George risked his life to save the lives of several sailors trapped on the USS Arizona platform. He retired from the Navy in 1955 and passed away 41 years later.
George Honored at Pearl Harbor
George’s family tried to have him honored for his heroism by the U.S. government through the decades. But it didn’t happen.
For many years, Stratton did not know the name of the man who saved him. Once he found out, Stratton joined the effort to honor him.
Stratton was so passionate about his quest that he arranged to discuss the situation with President Donald Trump in the White House in August 2017.
Donald Stratton, one of only five living survivors from the USS Arizona that was sunk at Pearl Harbor in 1941, meets with President Donald Trump in 2017.
Then, on December 7, 2017, George finally received his due. George’s daughter, Joe Ann Taylor, accepted the Bronze Star Medal on behalf of her deceased father in a ceremony at the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor.
Trump Lauds George’s Courage
Rear Admiral Matthew J. Carter, deputy commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, presented the medal.
Taylor said her father rarely discussed his years in World War II while she was growing up. But after retiring, he started attending reunions. Gradually, she heard the entire story.
“It was kind of surreal,” Taylor said in a recently published article. “You grow up with your dad thinking of him as dad; you’re not used to thinking of him as a hero.”
But he was a hero, indeed. Putting out fires where he could and hauling wounded sailors from the USS Arizona to the USS Vestal, his efforts won’t be forgotten.
President Trump said this about George: “We will always honor and remember a man whose courage knew no limits.”
Stratton Happy His Rescuer Was Honored
Stratton was thrilled that George finally received the recognition he deserved for so long.
Stratton was born in 1922 and raised in Red Cloud, Nebraska. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy after graduating from high school in 1940.
After recovering from his Pearl Harbor injuries, he re-joined the Navy and was commissioned to the destroyer USS Stack. He served in the New Guinea, Philippines and Okinawa campaigns in the Pacific from 1944 to 1945.
Stratton lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, now at peace that the hero who saved his life has finally been honored.
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