Joe George, early in his Navy years. George will posthumously receive the Bronze Star Medal for Valor on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017, aboard the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor.
Provided by family of Joe George via The Arizona Republic

PHOENIX — Anyone who heard the story of Joe George at Pearl Harbor knew at once this was the story of a hero: a young sailor who risked his life in the fiery Japanese ambush to rescue the last six survivors from the sinking USS Arizona.

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

Strangers who heard the story said it. The men he saved said it. 

But for more than seven decades, no one could make it happen. 

The Navy commended George for his actions and noted them in his record. For a medal, the Navy wanted an eyewitness account of the incident, corroboration from a senior officer who was aboard the USS Vestal with George on Dec. 7, 1941. Neither could be found.

More: Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day 2017: What happened on that fateful day 76 years ago?

And there was a hitch in the story: George, a boatswain's mate second class, disobeyed an order to cut the line between the Vestal, a maintenance ship, and the Arizona. He had spotted the six desperate men on the burning battleship and threw a line to them, ignoring the order to cast off.

The failure to follow orders seemed to stand in the way of George's medal.

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

He called. He wrote letters. He enlisted other Pearl Harbor survivors. He tracked down George's family and promised George's widow he would fight to secure recognition for the man who had saved his dad's life.

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

USS Arizona survivor Donald Stratton waits for the start of the 75th annual remembrance of the attack on Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 7, 2016.
Pat Shannahan, The Arizona Republic

And they did it. On Thursday, a Navy admiral will present Taylor a Bronze Star Medal for Valor, recognizing George posthumously. The ceremony will take place aboard the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, yards from where the story began.

And though George has died, the story continues. His efforts saved six men that day. Now, improbably — 76 years later — of the five USS Arizona survivors still alive, two of them are men George saved. 

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

"Whatever medal it is doesn’t matter," she said. "It was a story that needed to be told. It was a huge part of history, for those men who were true heroes, and it was was my dad who helped them."

How USS Arizona sailors were rescued

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

Stratton and five other crewmen were trapped on a burning tower as the battleship buckled beneath the Japanese assault. They were burned badly and thought they would die. Until they saw the sailor on the Vestal.

Randy Stratton would listen to his dad describe the heat, the flames, the pain, the terror of climbing hand-over-hand from the Arizona to the Vestal, the elation of rescue. He wondered about the Vestal sailor and searched until he learned the identity. When he discovered the sailor was never given a medal, he undertook the cause.

More: Remaining survivors of USS Arizona lay wreath at Arlington National Cemetery

He contacted then-representative Joel Hefley, who represented Stratton's home state of Colorado.

"The first time I took it to Joel Hefley, he said, 'This is going to be one of the easiest ones we’ve ever done,' " Randy Stratton said. "The Navy kicked it back."

He approached other lawmakers in other states, went to the Navy repeatedly, was told over and over that the medal would be an easy sell. But it wasn't.

The missing paperwork, the lack of corroborating accounts, the years that had passed, all worked against the sailor's son. And that issue of an order disobeyed seemed insurmountable.

"I was keeping it alive, keeping it out front," Randy Stratton said. By then he had reached out to George's widow. "I promised Thelma George way back when, I told her I was going to get her husband a medal. I called her every December 7 from the 60th anniversary on. I told her Lauren and my dad are still here because of her husband."

'I'm that unknown sailor'

Taylor knew little about her dad's experiences in World War II and didn't hear the story of the Vestal for years.  George told his daughter's husband, Gary, more than he told her.

“He would start to cry when he talked about it," she said. "We knew he was on the Vestal … but never did I have the opportunity to listen to what he did.”

George told the story start to finish in 1978 for an oral history program at North Texas State University (known now as the University of North Texas) in Denton, Texas. He recounted the incident with the six Arizona crewmen.

“I’m that unknown sailor,” he told the North Texas interviewer. “I’m the guy.”

A few years back, Taylor joined Randy Stratton in the campaign to secure a medal for her dad. She called senators, she called the Navy, she wrote letters, sent copies of documents. Nothing worked.

More: Pearl Harbor sailor laid to rest after 75 years

More: USS Arizona survivor interred in Pearl Harbor

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

In July, the surviving USS Arizona crew members 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 crewmen from the Arizona. Taylor and Randy Stratton also were there as Trump spoke about George's actions.

Pearl Harbor survivor Lauren Bruner attends the dual interment of fellow USS Arizona survivors John D. Anderson, boatswain’s mate 2nd class, and Clarendon R. Hetrick, seaman 1st class, at the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, as part of the 75th anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 7, 2016.
Provided by Navy Public Affairs Support Element Detachment Hawaii via The Arizona Republic

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

The group visited with lawmakers, representatives of the Navy and White House staff.

In September, Flake introduced a resolution honoring Joe George. The resolution passed unanimously.

In adopting the resolution, Flake said, "We have handed the Navy an opportunity to finally do right by Joe and finally recognize the unquestionable courage and heroism he demonstrated during the attack on Pearl Harbor."

'We're running out of time' 

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

"I couldn't help but get emotional," he said. "To imagine these individuals hanging on a lifeline Joe George had thrown to them."

2016: A moment of silence marks 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor

2016: Pearl Harbor: Survivors gather to mark a moment that changed the world

The family told Gardner they were going to Pearl Harbor in December.

"His son said he didn’t know if his dad would make it back again," the senator said.

Gardner had already reached out to the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, a retired Marine general, and made the case to honor George. 

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

"We are losing these heroes every day," he said. "To be a part of a mission completed on this one, a gesture of American appreciation, is something I’ll never forget."

A first-ever honor

Taylor got the call the Friday before Thanksgiving. Her father would receive the Bronze Star for Valor. She called the Strattons with the news.

Within a few days, they had arranged for a medal ceremony on the USS Arizona Memorial on Dec. 7, bringing the story full circle. It will be the first medal ever awarded on the memorial, which sits atop the Arizona wreckage.

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 make the trip to Hawaii.

2016: Pearl Harbor: 5 survive; 2 will join fallen USS Arizona shipmates

2016: Survivors seek honors for sailor who saved 6 in USS Arizona attack

George will be recognized during the Pearl Harbor Day commemoration service Thursday morning on shore. The families will gather on the USS Arizona memorial for a private ceremony with Rear Adm. Matthew Carter, deputy commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Stratton has told the story of Joe George as often as he has told his own. He grows emotional when he recounts the rescue and almost angry when he talks about the Navy's failure to award the young sailor a medal.

"He should have the Navy Cross," Stratton said in a 2014 interview with The Arizona Republic. "He saved six people's lives. Joe saved six lives and he didn't get crap. He refused to cut the line no matter what. As far he was concerned he was saving lives."

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

2016: Pearl Harbor: Silent morning, afternoon of farewells

2016: Pearl Harbor survivor remembers: ‘All hell broke loose’

"We always kept saying even if we don’t get the medal, we’ve got the attention we needed," he said. "People know who Joe George is. He's not the unknown sailor anymore."

Over the past few months, as the Navy validated the story, they found George's records. Among them were his logbook, where he was commended for saving the six men from the Arizona.

And something else. Or, rather, something that wasn't there.

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

Follow Shaun McKinnon on Twitter: @shaunmckinnon

2015: USS Arizona survivors could return to Pearl Harbor for 75th anniversary

2015: USS Arizona survivors meet again, ring old ship's bell

2015: Oldest survivor of Pearl Harbor's USS Arizona dies

2014: USS Arizona: The men who survived