In honor of Memorial Day, we would like to share one of our board member’s, Matt Previts personal account of escorting 3 out of the 5 living USS Arizona Survivors last year, to Washington D.C. to honor their crewmate, Joe George, who disobeyed orders in order to ultimately save their lives.
Lauren Brunner (96), Don Stratton (95) and Ken Potts (96) were on a mission to recognize and formally decorate their hero, Joe George, the sailor who saved their lives along 4 other survivors that fateful day, December 7, 1941.
“During the trip to Hawaii for the 75th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor, I came to understand that Ken Potts (96), Don Stratton (95), and Lauren Bruner (96), 3 of the 5 living USS Arizona Survivors, had never been to Washington, D.C. In addition, Don and Lauren were still on a mission to have Joe George, the sailor from the USS Vestal who saved their lives and the lives of 4 others, formally decorated. With those two realities in mind, we planned a trip for them.
Here we go…
On Wednesday, July 19, 2017, our 3 survivors arrived in Washington D.C. welcomed by a water cannon salute greeted by the Navy, Army and Honor Flight Personnel at the gate. Initially, when the survivors stepped off the plane, God Bless America was sung.
The next day, we were treated to a private breakfast at the Navy/Army Club. The survivors were each presented with 5 oz. pure silver 75th Anniversary Pearl Harbor coin. Shortly after breakfast, they were escorted by the National Park Service Police to the WWII Memorial, where they walked around and took in the scenery.
We then set off for the Senate Office Building, where we had the pleasure of meeting various senators including Senator Gardner, who shared a letter written by his father who was a WWII Paratrooper, serving in Europe. The letter was from the day the Germans surrendered. Each senator was presented with the book: “All The Gallant Men” written by one of the survivors himself, Don Stratton, and 1 of the 75 USS Arizona 75th Anniversary coins which are only given by USS Arizona survivors.
And before we knew it, the big day had arrived. We started the day with breakfast at the Army/Navy Club and soon after we were escorted to Arlington National Cemetery by the National Park Service for the Official Wreath Laying took place. This ceremony is typically reserved for presidents/heads of state, but this was a special occasion. After the powerful ceremony honoring the USS Arizona and her crew, we headed off to the Pentagon.
Our survivors were greeted down two hallways lined with hundreds of service members, clapping and celebrating the bravery and heroism of Brunner, Stratton and Potts. After speaking with a staff member of 22-years, she said she’s never seen anything like it. After the warm welcome, they were off for a full tour of the Pentagon.
Once the all- inclusive tour ended, we all met with the Secretary of Defense, the Chief of Naval Operations and other notable staff to hear the first account of their story. Lauren spoke powerfully from the heart for 10 minutes, highlighting Joe George saving him and then asked Don to pick up and keep the story going. The SECDEF and CNO were presented with 75th anniversary challenge coin as well as a wooden painting of the US Flag signed by the survivors.
Sooner than later, we found ourselves loading into vans headed to the White House, escorted by Pentagon Police through our nation’s capital. After an extensive security pre-check, complete with car screenings and bomb-sniffing dogs, we finally were granted entrance. The White House staff led us into the West Wing, where we relaxed in the Roosevelt Room, right outside the Oval Office.
The survivors arranged to give the President a piece of the ship, a signed USS Arizona hat, and a 75th anniversary challenge coin while gifting the first lady a bracelet containing a piece of the ship. We entered the Oval Office and waited for the President. Originally, this was to be a private meeting/gift exchange. Once he read the briefing I prepared, he asked if the survivors would be open to him reading a public statement and having the press in the room. He entered and greeted us and then said “Ok, time to let the press in”. The President left, then the press exited.
The door swung open and the President came back in saying “Let’s take some pictures, let’s talk some more!” Once we wrapped up, we were disappointed to hear that the White House tours ended at 1 p.m. Much to our delight, the President’s staff arranged for a uniformed secret service police officer to provide a VIP tour and were told to “stay as long as we’d like”.
The last day of our journey arrived and we headed out to our last excursion, the US Navy Museum. We were greeted warmly by the Commanding Officer for the Navy Yard and the head of the US Navy History and Heritage Society. Sailors took the survivors around the museum and were permitted to see and hold some of the museum’s most priceless artifact’s, including a 600 year old Japanese sword. We also stopped by the Old Guard’s stables to see the horses and caisson’s used in funerals at Arlington National Cemetery.”
This trip, and the story of the survivors and Joe George will be told by the WWII Foundation in a film narrated by Gary Sinese, related on Memorial Day 2018.
To see additional photos of the trip