He was only a boatswain's mate second-class assigned to a repair ship in the U.S. Navy that fateful Sunday, December 7th, 1941 -- but he knew how to obey orders and, more important, when to ignore them and act on his own initiative. His 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. 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 mission accomplished.
The president recognized a couple of survivors of the attack who had made it to White House for the ceremony, Donald Stratton and Lauren Bruner, both of whom had been aboard the doomed battleship 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 the 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 (and), Joe Ann, thank you for inspiring our nation by telling the story of your father -- a true patriot ... a man who goes down in history, really, with the Arizona...."
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 to the bottom of the sea, Joe George began by following orders and cutting the lines to the Arizona. Just as he was ordered and indeed had 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 their 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, Joe George hurled it across the watery depths -- once, twice, again and again till it finally snagged, caught ... and somehow held. The already battered, bruised 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, with Joe George shouting encouragement all the way. ("Come on, kid, you can do it!") Dangling there 45 feet above the flaming waters, they somehow made it along the 75-foot-long, weighted rope, making their escape before it came apart. Talk about narrow escapes, they made it, if just barely.
One of those rescued sailors, 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." In the book, he writes in his own uninhibited style, throwing both caution and grammar 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 should be grateful to her for seeing that it got told at last.
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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.