National Opinions

Bravery of USS Vestal crew saved many lives Dec. 7, 1941

History focuses most on the cataclysmic explosion on the USS Arizona and sunken battleship memorial — still a tomb for over 900 crew — in remembering the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

But examples of terrible loss — and incredible bravery and fortitude — from the day of infamy 77 years ago extend beyond that event.

Such was the case of repair ship USS Vestal, which was in the shadow of the big-gunned Arizona. Tied up outboard the battlewagon, the 466-foot Vestal took two Japanese bombs, was set afire and in danger of being consumed by the inferno raging next to it on the Arizona.

Out of the chaos came at least two acts of heroism, one involving Petty Officer 2nd Class Joe George, a boxer and farmhand from Georgia, and another involving the captain of the Vestal, Cmdr. Cassin Young, who would receive the Medal of Honor.

On Wednesday, the National Park Service and the Navy retraced the path of the Vestal, which was sinking when an oil-soaked Young, blown off the ship by the blast on the Arizona, swam back, countermanded an order to abandon ship, and directed the damaged vessel to the shallow waters of Aiea Shoal near McGrew Point to save it and prevent it from blocking the channel.

From the Navy launch used for the short trip, George's daughter, Joe Ann Taylor, placed flowers in the water in remembrance of the nearly 90-man crew and seven who died.

The Cabot, Ark., resident, who came out with six other family members, said the experience was “pretty emotional.”

Hearing Daniel Martinez, a USS Arizona Memorial historian, retell the story of what happened, “you feel the emotion of that day, and the horror of that day, and the chaos of that day and everything that was going on,” the 70-year-old Taylor said.

When a 1,760-pound Japanese high-altitude armor-piercing bomb penetrated the Arizona, igniting a million pounds of gunpowder from its 14-inch guns, the blast blew dozens of men off the Vestal and rained burning shrapnel and body parts onto its decks. Even though his ship was on fire, George threw a line to six badly burned Arizona crew members trapped high up on the ship, allowing them to survive by climbing hand-over-hand onto the Vestal.

Before extending the lifeline, the 2nd class petty officer had been using an ax to cut the mooring lines. Don Stratton, who received burns over 65 percent of his body, but was one of those who made it to safety, said George halted the line-cutting long enough to save the men.

The 26-year-old George and an officer “were engaged in some kind of a debate, a heated one” on the Vestal that conveyed to Stratton that “we didn't have a chance,” he recalled in his book, “All the Gallant Men.”

But George, who sometimes was sent to the brig for drunken brawls, stood his ground.

“One thing is for certain: 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,” Stratton wrote.

Last year on Dec. 7, the Navy presented a Bronze Star with “V” for valor to George’s family after Stratton and fellow USS Arizona survivor Lauren Bruner lobbied for a long-overdue Navy Cross or other recognition. George died in 1996.

Cited for “outstanding heroism,” meanwhile, Young was one of five Medal of Honor recipients (15 total were awarded from the day) to survive the attack.

Oil was on fire on the water between his ship and the Arizona. Vestal was settling and listing.

With “extreme coolness and calmness,” Young “moved his ship to an anchorage distant from the USS Arizona, and subsequently beached the USS Vestal upon determining that such action was required to save his ship,” his citation states. The Vestal served through the war, receiving two battle stars for its actions.

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