LIFELINE: Pearl Harbor’s Unknown Hero
Six men wave for help from the deck of the USS Arizona on December 7, 1941. The battleship had been hit by Japanese bombers, igniting an ammunition store, and sending flames up the masts and control towers. Alongside the Arizona was moored the USS Vestal, a repair and maintenance ship, where Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Joe George was fighting encroaching fires. The Vestal’s captain and other crew members had been blown overboard by an explosion, and a senior officer wanted to move the Vestal away from the sinking Arizona and the burning oil on the surface of the surrounding water.
The officer ordered George to cut the Vestal loose. If the Arizona sank, the Vestal would go with it. Seeing the men waving for help on the Arizona’s deck, George refused. He threw a line toward the Arizona, allowing the men to crawl across to relative safety before returning to combat the fires onboard.
George was commended for his actions on the record of his time in the Navy, his Continuous Service Certificate, but never received a medal. In fact, he was known as “The Unknown Sailor” for many years, having rarely spoken to anyone about the event.
Around the 60th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack in 2001, the remaining survivors of the six rescued sailors set about securing a medal for George. “They made it their final mission to make sure that Joe George was recognized for what he did,” said filmmaker Tim Gray, “George wasn’t a model Navy sailor – he was a brawler and liked to drink – but when the time came, he chose to save the lives of fellow sailors, disobeying a direct order.”
Narrated by actor Gary Sinise, PBS HAWAI‘I PRESENTS Lifeline: Pearl Harbor’s Unknown Hero tells the story of how Joe George became an unlikely hero, and how he was recognized with a Bronze Medal more than 70 years later. “Even though Pearl Harbor was attacked 77 years ago, this is a story people have never heard before,” said Gray, “Individual stories of heroism like this so easily fly under the radar. It is important that people hear them.”