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These men experienced the horror of the sinking of the battleship USS Arizona and lived to tell the tale. "Witnesses of infamy: the survivors of the battleship attack USS Arizona", a special documentary Azcentral Pat Shannahan.
Copyright The Arizona Republic / azcentral.com

PHOENIX – Anyone who has heard the story of Joe George in Pearl Harbor knew immediately that this was the story of a hero: a young sailor who risked his life in the fierce Japanese ambush to rescue the last six survivors of the sunken USS Arizona.

Joe George should get a medal for what he did, everyone would say.

The strangers who heard the story said it. The men who saved said it.

But for more than seven decades, nobody could make it happen.

The Navy praised George for his actions and noted them on his record. To obtain a medal, the Navy wanted an account of the incident, corroboration of a senior officer who was aboard the USS Vestal with George on December 7, 1941. Neither of them could be found.

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And there was a hitch in the story: George, second mate of a boatswain, disobeyed an order to cut the line between the Vestal, a maintenance ship and the Arizona. He had seen the six desperate men on the burning warship and threw them a line, ignoring the order to leave.

Failure to comply with the orders seemed to hamper George's medal.

George died in 1996. A few years later, the son of one of the men whom George rescued took the cause of the medal.

He called. He wrote letters. He enlisted other survivors of Pearl Harbor. He located George's family and promised George's widow that he would fight to secure recognition from the man who had saved his father's life.

George's daughter, Joe Ann Taylor, joined the campaign. They took him all the way to the White House.

USS Arizona survivor Donald Stratton awaits the start of the 75th annual Pearl Harbor attack commemoration on December 7, 2016. (Photo: Pat Shannahan, The Arizona Republic)

And they did. On Thursday, a Navy Admiral will give Taylor a Bronze Star Medal for Courage, recognizing George posthumously. The ceremony will be held on board the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, a few meters from where the story began.

And although George died, the story continues. His efforts saved six men that day. Now, unlikely, 76 years later, of the five surviving USS Arizona survivors, two of them are men that George saved.

When Taylor accepts her father's medal, she will not be alone. Donald Stratton, 95, and Lauren Bruner, 97, will be standing there with her.

"Whatever the medal, it does not matter," he said. "It was a story that should be told, it was a big part of the story, for the men who were true heroes, and it was my father who helped them."

How Sailors from USS Arizona were rescued

In 1966, Donald Stratton returned to Pearl Harbor for the first time since the attack. He had not talked much about it until then, but after that visit, he revealed more of what happened, of his Arizona rescue.

Stratton and five other crew members were trapped in a burning tower while the battleship was fastened under the Japanese Assault. They were badly burned and thought they would die. Until they saw the sailor in the vestal.

Randy Stratton listened to his father describe the heat, the flames, the pain, the terror of climbing hand to hand from Arizona to the vestal, the joy of the rescue. He asked about the sailor Vestal and searched until he discovered the identity. When he discovered that the sailor never received a medal, he undertook the cause.

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Contacted then -representative Joel Hefley, who represented the home state of Stratton , Colorado.

"The first time I took it to Joel Hefley, he said," This will be one of the easiest we've done ", Randy Stratton said. "The Navy threw him back".

He approached other legislators in other states, went repeatedly to the Navy, was told again and again that the medal would be an easy sale. But it was not like that.

The paperwork that was missing, the lack of corroboration of the reports, the years passed, everything worked against the son of the sailor. And that issue of a disobeyed order seemed insurmountable.

"I kept him alive, keeping him in front," said Randy Stratton. By then, he approached George's widow. "I promised Thelma George I would return when I told her I was going to give her husband a medal, I called her every December 7th since the 60th anniversary, I told her that Lauren and my dad are still here for her husband."

& # 39; I'm that unknown sailor & # 39;

Taylor knew very little about his father's experiences in World War II and did not listen to Vestal's history for years. George told his daughter's husband, Gary, more than he told her.

"I would start crying when I talked about that," he said. "We knew he was on the vestal … but I never had the opportunity to listen to what he did."

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George said the story will begin in 1978 in an oral history program at North Texas State University (now known as the University of North Texas) in Denton, Texas. He told the incident with the six crew members from Arizona.

"I'm that unknown sailor," he told the North Texas interviewer. "I'm the guy."

A few years ago, Taylor joined Randy Stratton in the campaign to secure a medal for his father. He called senators, called the Navy, wrote letters and sent copies of documents. Nothing worked.

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The breakthrough occurred earlier this year. Taylor had been working with Senator Tom Cotton in his home state of Arkansas. Randy Stratton was in touch with Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado. They brought Arizona Senator Jeff Flake.

In July, the surviving crew members of the USS Arizona were invited to the White House to meet with President Trump. Donald Stratton and Bruner made the trip, along with Ken Potts, 96, another of the five surviving crew members of Arizona. Taylor and Randy Stratton were also present when Trump spoke about George's actions.

Lauren Bruner, survivor of Pearl Harbor, attends the double burial of other survivors of the USS Arizona John D. Anderson, Petty Officer 2 class, and Clarendon R. Hetrick, First class sailor, at the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, as part of the 75th anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 2016. (Photo: provided by Navy Public Affairs Support Element Hawaii Detachment through The Arizona Republic)

"Joe Ann, your father makes us all proud," the president said. "Thank you for inspiring our nation by telling your father's story."

The group visited legislators, representatives of Navy personnel and the White House.

In September, Flake filed a resolution honoring Joe George. The resolution was approved unanimously.

In adopting the resolution, Flake said: "We have given the Navy the opportunity to finally do the right thing for Joe and finally recognize the courage and undisputed heroism he demonstrated during the attack on Pearl Harbor." [19659023] & # 39; We're running out of time & # 39;

On Veterans Day, Gardner, the Colorado senator, made the trip to Colorado Springs, where Donald Stratton lives with his wife, Velma. He heard the stories again and an energetic appeal from Stratton to honor George.

"I could not help but get excited," he said. "Imagine these people hanging from a life preserver that Joe George had thrown at them"

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The family told Gardner that they would go to Pearl Harbor in December.

"His son said he did not do it" "I do not know if his father would come back," the senator said.

Gardner had already contacted the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, a retired Navy general, and had presented the case to honor George.

"I knew this had to be resolved by December 7," Gardner said. "We are running out of time.

" We are losing these heroes every day, "he said. Being part of a mission completed in this, a gesture of American appreciation, is something we will never forget. "

An honor for the first time

Taylor received the call the Friday before Thanksgiving, his father would receive the Bronze Star for Courage, he called the Strattons with the news.

In a few days, he organized a medal award ceremony at the USS Arizona Memorial on December 7, completing the circle's history – it will be the first medal ever awarded at the memorial, which sits on the remains of Arizona.

Donald Stratton and Bruner will be there , along with Lou Conter, 96, another of the last five survivors, Potts and Lonnie Cook, 97, the other two survivors, were unable to travel to Hawaii.

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George s It will be recognized during the Pearl Harbor Day commemoration service on Thursday morning on the coast. Families will gather at the USS Arizona memorial for a private ceremony with Rear Admiral Matthew Carter, deputy commander of the US Pacific Fleet. UU

Stratton has told the story of Joe George as often as he has told him. He gets excited when he tells the rescue and almost angry when he talks about the Navy not giving a medal to the young sailor.

"I should have the Naval Cross," Stratton said in an interview in 2014 with The Arizona Republic . "He saved the lives of six people, Joe saved six lives and he did not make a mistake, he refused to cut the line no matter what, he was saving lives as far as he was concerned."

Stratton's son said the medal will represent an official recognition, but he and the others have achieved an almost-important goal.

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"We have always said that even if we do not get the medal, we have the attention we need," he said. He said. "People know who Joe George is, he's not the unknown sailor anymore."

In recent months, when the Navy validated the story, they found George's records. Among them was his log book, where he was congratulated for saving the six men from Arizona.

And something else. Or, rather, something that was not there.

"There was nothing in the record that said he disobeyed orders," Taylor said. "There was no record saying that"

Follow Shaun McKinnon on Twitter: @shaunmckinnon

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