We’ve returned from the nation’s capital in support of a trip for 3 of the 5 living USS Arizona Survivors. 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 ½) 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. The support and generosity of many made the trip a resounding success. Special thanks go to Delta Airlines for providing airfare, MobilityWorks for providing vehicles, the Army / Navy Club for hosting us, Honor Flight DC for welcoming the survivors, the White House, Pentagon, Senate, National Park Service, and US Navy for warm welcomes and support along with way. So here we go…
Wednesday – 19JUL17
Lauren Bruner and his group traveled from LAX while Don Stratton, his wife and family few in from Denver. Ken Potts and his wife were delayed and few in on Thursday. Upon arrival, the fire department provided a water cannon salute and there were a number of Navy, Army, and Honor flight personnel at the gate to greet them. When the survivors stepped off the plane, God Bless America was sung.
THURSDAY - 20JUL17
The morning began with a private breakfast the Army / Navy Club. We were joining by Senator Tom Cotton and Admiral Thorpe, USN (ret.) Before departing for the WWII Memorial, Adm. Thorpe presented a 5 ounce, pure silver 75th Anniversary Pearl Harbor coin to each survivor.
Here’s the video of the presentation.
And a Press Release of the story.
Here’s the coin they were presented.
We next moved onto the WWII Memorial, which included an escort by the NPS Police. Sen. Cotton joined us as we walked the memorial.
Next, we traveled to the Senate Office Building where we had meetings with Sen. Gardner, Sen. Flake, and Sen. Lee. Senator Gardner 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 a signed copy of All the Gallant Men, and 1 of the 75 USS Arizona 75th Anniversary coins which are only given by USS Arizona survivors. All the senators were receptive to the idea of supporting recognition for Joe George.
The Senators were kind enough to take pictures with us as we celebrated our 5th Wedding Anniversary. The highlight was dining with Ken Potts and his lovely wife Doris.
FRIDAY - 21JUL17
This was the big day, we of course started with breakfast at the Army / Navy Club. From there, the National Park Service police escorted us to Arlington National Cemetary.
We arranged for an OFFICIAL WREATH LAYING. This is typically reserved for Presidents and Heads of State. President Trump and Vice President Pence did this exact same ceremony the day before the inauguration.
It was a simple, solemn, powerful ceremony that included laying a wreath honoring the USS Arizona and her crew, followed by the playing of taps. It was my honor to participate by serving as Lauren’s wheelchair driver.
Next we were off to the Pentagon. The Survivors were welcomed in through the Secretary of Defense’s protocol doors and then greeted down two different hallways packed by service members clapping them in.
There were hundreds of service members lining two different long hallways. The Pentagon staffer whom has worked there 22 years said she’s never seen anything like it
Here’s a video from DOD:
We took in a full tour of the Pentagon, including the 9/11 memorial where the survivors signed the guest book. Once the tour was complete, we met with Secretary of Defense Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dunford, USMC, and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Richardson, USN in the SECDEF’s conference room. Secretary Mattis opened the meeting by thanking the survivors for their service, sacrifice, and example and stated that “You all are hard to get a meeting with. By the time I heard about it, you already had a meeting with the Chairman, the CNO, and lunch with the Master Chief of the Navy. I had to elbow my way in here. Now we’re going to lean forward, shut up, and listen to every word you say.” Ken kicked off the comments by sharing that Lauren and Don were the ones in real danger so they should go first. 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.
Ken jumped in by asking permission to ask the Admiral a question. Here was the exchange
Ken: “Admiral, I was a boatswain’s mate and I heard you’ve gotten rid of ‘em. Why did you do that?”
CNO: “Ken, we still have boatswain’s mate and they are an important part of the fleet.”
Ken: “Well Admiral, I’ve talked to a lot of people and read that they are gone.”
CNO: “I can assure you sir that, as the Chief of Naval Operations responsible for all United States Navy activity on the planet, we still have boatswain’s mates”
Ken: “Good, well then I’d like to sign back up.”
Don: “If he gets to go back in, so do I.”
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. General Dunford was presented with a flag flown over the USS Arizona on Memorial day as well as a challenge coin.
As it was lunch time, we were escorted to the Commandant of the Marine Corps private dining room where the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy and his wife hosted us for lunch. The conversation was lively, the lunch delicious, and the company outstanding. Since we had a tight schedule, as soon as lunch wrapped up we exited the Pentagon and loaded the vans for the White house.
The Pentagon Police escorted us from the Pentagon through the Capital and to the secured White House entrance on 17th and State.
The guests in our three vehicles were all pre-screened, our IDs checked, the vehicles were scanned and the bomb sniffing dogs were utilized before we were permitted to unload just outside the White House. The White House staff escorted us through security and into the West Wing, where we relaxed in the Roosevelt Room just 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 giving the first lady a bracelet containing a piece of the ship.
At this point, those of going into the Oval Office were required to turn in our phones. Fortunately Mike Dovilla, Paul Sabataitis and my lovely wife were able to snap a few pictures since they did not go into the Oval Office. We entered the Oval Office and waiting for the President. Originally, this was to be a private meeting and 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. It was the President’s intention to tell of each survivor’s story as well as the story of Joe George. He entered and greeted each of us warmly, personably, and then said “Ok, time to let the press in.”
Here is the press coverage of his statement:
The President left, then the press exited. We figured that our visit was over so we started to depart. The door then 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 told that White House tours end at 1pm. The President’s staff arranged for a uniformed secret service police officer to provide us a VIP tour and we were told “stay as long as you like.”
During the course of the tour, the White House staff brought us glasses of water. Ken Potts still drinking it when we were preparing to leave and one of the interns said, “You can hold onto that.” As we were departing the back security gate, a Secret Service agent said to Ken, “I’ll take that sir.” Ken’s response, “They told me I could keep it.” The glass is now in Utah with Ken.
As a thank you, Ken treated us to dinner with him and Ms. Doris. He was thrilled that he only spent $26.00 for dinner.
SATURDAY - 22JUL17
Needless to say, the survivors and their spouses were very tired the next day, so they slept in before we headed out to the US Navy Museum. The CO for the Navy Yard, along with Adm Cox, USN (ret) the head of the US Navy History and Heritage Society greeted our group warmly at the museum. Sailors took the survivors around the museum and the survivors were permitted to see and hold some of the museum’s most priceless artifacts, including a 600 year old Japanese sword that was surrendered by a Japanese Officer on Tarawa.
We next stopped by the Old Guard’s stables to see the horses and caisson’s used in funerals at Arlington National Cemetary
We wrapped up the evening with a private dinner at the Army / Navy Country Club, followed by a visit to the WWII Memorial for Ken and Doris and a visit to the Vietnam and Korea Memorial for the rest of the group.
SUNDAY - 22JUL17
The last gathering for the survivors was a private breakfast and worship service presided over by Adm. Margaret Kibben, the Chief of all US Navy Chaplains. She and her husband, a retired marine, were very generous to share their time with us on a Sunday morning.
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
Senator Flake is sponsoring a Senate resolution to honor and recognize Joe George. This is the final living wish of Donald Stratton and Lauren Bruner. I’ve made a personal commitment to them and their shipmates to see this through. The story is nearly written…just one more chapter to go!
A special thanks to my lovely wife Lisa for her support before, during, and after the trip. Go NAVY!