Lauren Bruner and Donald Stratton visited the White House Friday, a trip they would have missed if their friend Joe George had not violated orders more than 75 years ago at Pearl Harbor.
Bruner, 96, Stratton, 94, along with Ken Potts, 95, were survivors of the USS Arizona, a battleship destroyed during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, who reunited at Arlington National Cemetery and then with President Trump at the White House Friday.
As the number of Arizona survivors has dwindled down to five — Bruner, Potts, Stratton, Lou Conter, 95, and Lonnie Cook, 96 — the group is increasingly vocal about their experience and in advocating for recognition of their friend George, who saved the lives of Stratton and Bruner but never received any honors for doing so.
Coming to Washington for the three survivors meant more than a time to honor those who were lost in the attack: It was also a chance to advocate for recognition for George.
Stratton said he was unable to ask Trump to honor his friend but was able to speak about George and feels like progress was made.
"We didn’t actually get any conversation with the president but all the conversation was in front of the press and we spoke about Joe George," Stratton said. "I think we accomplished a lot today through that and getting his story out there."
Stratton and Bruner survived the wreckage thanks to George’s bravery. George was on a neighboring ship, the Vestal, when the bombs hit the Arizona. He defied orders from an officer to leave the area and instead saved six men who were in a gunner’s control tower while their ship was engulfed in flames. The six escaped when George threw a weighted rope to the Arizona and the men climbed hand over hand down it and to the Vestal. Bruner was the second-to-last man to leave the ship.
Both Stratton and Bruner suffered severe burns and spent weeks in the hospital before returning to serve. The burns on Stratton’s hands smoothed his fingertips, removing the grooves and his ability to make an identifiable fingerprint.
Because George did not obey orders to leave the area, the Navy did not ever issue him a medal. Stratton believes he should receive a Navy Cross posthumously.
Trump thanked the veterans for their heroic service.
"There are many remarkable things that I witness as president, but nothing can take the place of meeting heroes like those with us today," Trump said. "In them we see the strength of our nation, the courage of our men and women in uniform, the resolve to never accept failure, and the belief that justice will always triumph."
The meeting was an honor Stratton says he never envisioned.
"This is something I never expected in my whole life I met some very interesting people, Stratton said. "This country is so apart and this is something which brings us together."
The men were honored with a certificate memorializing their visit to the cemetery and a coin from the Old Guard Third Infantry Regiment, who guard the tomb.
“The fact that those guys — not only were they survivors of USS Arizona — but they came here today to pay their respects to the Tomb of the Unknown is amazing,” said Command Sergeant Major Scott Beeson. “I shook every one of their hands and it was amazing.”
'A very special day'
In return, the veterans presented them with a coin from the 75th anniversary of the sinking of the USS Arizona — only 75 such coins were made.
“We are humbled that they traveled here to lay a wreath today,” said Arlington National Cemetery Superintendent Katherine Kelley. “Certainly this is a rare opportunity because of the age of the survivors. We do honor our veterans throughout their lives pretty frequently here, but this is a very special day.”
Nearly half of the casualties in the Pearl Harbor attack were from the USS Arizona. Many of the 1,177 who died were in their bunks when the ship was hit during the 7:48 a.m. surprise attack and their bodies are still preserved with the sunken hull.
Because so many bodies are preserved there, USS Arizona survivors, if they wish, can choose to have their cremated remains buried with the boat after they die. The last to be buried on the USS Arizona was Raymond Haerry earlier this year.