A Monticello mom and her daughter recently had a graduation-related encounter with a World War II veteran who heroically survived America’s “Day of Infamy.”
Late last month, Deborah Lantz traveled to Hawaii to celebrate her daughter, Anita’s graduation from Concordia College as an elementary education teacher.
Lantz said the trip was one of the items to fulfill on her bucket list of life goals and aspirations.
“We stayed on Maui for eight glorious days, and we flew to the main island Oahu, to see Pearl Harbor,” Lantz wrote in an email.
“That visit to Pearl Harbor will be forever imprinted in my mind,” she added. “Anita and I had the honor of meeting one of the handful of survivors of the horrific attack on Pearl Harbor, Sterling Cale.”
Cale recalled the events of what started out as a quiet Sunday morning on Dec. 7, 1941.
Lantz said the stories Cale shared were too numerous to fit into the precious time that was shared, but she was looking forward to reading his book, “A True American,” which gives an account of his experiences as a Pearl Harbor survivor, and a World War II, Korean and Vietnam War veteran.
Detailed information about Cale’s military career is published on the National Park Service’s World War II Valor in the Pacific website. His biography reads as follows:
On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Cale had just finished up a long night of work. He was a pharmacist’s mate in the U.S. Navy, a self-proclaimed “farm boy from Illinois.”
He worked at the dispensary, where sailors got their medicine. Just after signing out, he noticed planes flying over Battleship Row, near Ford Island
“Why are planes over at Battleship Row? That’s a lot of activity for Sunday,” he said. He noticed the red circles on the planes.
They were Japanese, and this was a real attack.
He ran back inside to break out some guns. Outside, Cale saw and heard planes dropping bombs just over the water.
He and his friends knew the men at Battleship Row needed their help. They headed toward the USS Oklahoma.
Before they got there, the ship rolled over after being hit by aerial torpedoes dropped from Japanese planes that were attacking the naval base.
Sailors filled the waters of Pearl Harbor, swimming for their lives in T-shirts and shorts. The top of the water was burning. The oil leaking from the ships was on fire.
Cale and his friends had to swim underwater as much as possible to avoid getting burned.
It was their job to help rescue people from the water. He was right there in the water when the USS Arizona blew up.
No one who heard that deafening sound would ever forget it. After the initial explosion, the blackened and twisted ship burned for almost three days.
Sterling remembers, “In four hours, I picked up about 45 people. Some were dead, some were badly burned, some were just tired. We would get them in a boat going by.”
Cale still tears up when remembering what it was like. When Cale first returned to his duty station, he was scolded for breaking into the armory during “peacetime.” (War wasn’t declared until the next day.)
Instead of getting in trouble at captain’s mast, he was awarded with a carton of cigarettes and an award.
When final causality numbers were tallied, it became clear that the USS Arizona had been hit the hardest.
Of the 2,390 lives lost from the attack, 1,177 belonged to Arizona’s crew.
It was Cale’s job, along with a detail of 10 men, to remove bodies from the destroyed battleship. They did their best, but it was difficult work.
Besides being emotionally draining, it was physically challenging.
There weren’t many identifiable bodies to recover. For three weeks, the detail kept track of the condition and location of the remains they found.
Cale tearfully remembers seeing ashes blowing across the deck of the ship. It took him a minute to realize that they were the remains of young men. They had burned to ashes when the ship exploded.
The fire was so intense that it even melted identification tags and guns.
Overall, Cale’s work team removed about 107 identifiable bodies and a number of unknowns. Their families would never know exactly what happened.
He can still picture the scene like it was yesterday. It was a trying time in his life and career, but it did not discourage him from serving the United States with pride.
Cale later served at Guadalcanal before going “blue to green” and joining the U.S. Army.
He served as the head of the pharmacy at Tripler Hospital and a medical company at Schofield Barracks. He then served over a year on the front lines in Korea in 1950.
Eventually, after more service on Oahu, the mainland, and in Vietnam, Sterling retired from the U.S. Army as a sergeant major.
After his military service, Cale enjoyed a long and successful civilian career. He used the linguistic and medical skills he gained during his years in the military. He also raised a family with his wife of over 70 years. They have two children and four grandchildren.
Cale volunteers at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center. He also participates in video-conference programs, speaking to students all across the country.
“Instead of doing things I have to do, I’ll do things I want to do,” he says. And what he wants to do is to share his story and honor the lives lost and lessons learned along the way.
Contact Tim Hennagir at [email protected]