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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Pearl Harbor survivor recounts attack, aftermath

 •  Fewer Pearl Harbor Day vets in Hawaii

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Sterling Cale survived the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Advertiser library photo

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The 66th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is Friday. Among those who witnessed the death from the bullets and bombs that rained out of the sky was Sterling R. Cale.

Trained as a pharmacist's mate in the Navy, Cale was assigned to the Pearl Harbor shipyard dispensary in July 1941. After completing night duty, the Macomb, Ill., native signed out at 7 a.m. on what was then still a sleepy Dec. 7, 1941, Sunday morning.

Less than an hour later, the 20-year-old's life was turned upside down. At first, he thought the planes diving on ships in Pearl Harbor were part of another mock attack. But then he saw the rising sun on the wingtips and fuselage and knew the U.S. was under attack.

Cale pulled bodies from the harbor and was put in charge of the burial party removing dead servicemen from the battleship USS Arizona. At one point Cale, overcome by the enormity of the loss, sat down and cried. The U.S. Navy had suffered its greatest defeat in history. Twenty-one vessels were sunk or damaged. American dead totaled 2,390.

Cale served around the Pacific, including Guadalcanal, joined the Army, and also saw duty in Korea and Vietnam. He retired with 57 years of government service, and several years ago began volunteering at the USS Arizona Memorial visitor center. He turned 86 last Thursday.

Q. What is the one thing you remember most from Dec. 7, 1941?

A. The one thing I remember is being down there in the water pulling the people off the ships that were sunk. Some of them were dead already, some of them were badly wounded, some badly burned, and some were just tired because they had been blown off the ship. There wasn't much room on the little boats we were using, so some of the dead, we had to just throw a line around their leg and haul them ashore until we could get back to them.

Q. What went through your mind when you realized that the Japanese were attacking?

A. At the time I said, "I don't know what is happening we don't train on Sundays." And when I looked out there on the battle wagons and the planes were diving I said, "My God, those are Japanese planes." This time, I ran over to the receiving station and took the fire axe and was breaking down the door of the armory to hand out the '03 Springfield rifles.

Q. You removed the bodies of service members from the harbor and USS Arizona. What did that do to you as a 20-year-old?

A. I had a 10-man detail and we were there six weeks and we removed 109 bodies (from the Arizona). Many of them were just ashes because the ship burned for two and a half days right down to the teak wood deck. We were trained for that kind of an activity, actually. Not trained for war, but hospital corpsmen were trained for that type of activity. Being a hospital corpsman at Guadalcanal with the 1st Marine Division and being in Korea, being in Vietnam, at time of war, those things don't really bother me until the Dec. 7 (observance) comes along. The planes nowadays are much faster than they were in 1941. The planes come in, the whistle blows, the ship comes through, the planes come diving down, and all the shivers go right down my shoulders. I'm right out there again in the middle of the ocean pulling up the bodies of the men on Dec. 7. The rest of the year it doesn't bother me.

Q. Do you draw parallels between Dec. 7, 1941 and Sept. 11, 2001?

A. The only parallel that you can draw between 9/11 and Dec. 7 is the similarity in number of men killed. Otherwise, there's no similarity whatsoever. It was a sneak attack on Dec. 7, is what they said. But the Japanese never thought that because when we went ahead and bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, although we dropped little pamphlets around and told them we were going to do it, you can also say that was a sneak attack. But if we hadn't done that, we would have never ended the war. On Sept. 11, we had no opportunity to do anything when the planes went into the buildings and set them on fire. (World War II) was a war between nations. The kind of attack that they were doing (on Sept. 11, 2001), nothing could be done about it in advance. It's terrorism.

Q. What will you be doing on Dec. 7?

A. I don't know what the (volunteer coordinator at the Arizona Memorial) has lined up for us. If he doesn't have anyone, I'll put one of those wreaths on one of the ships that were sunk. If he has people already lined up for that, I'll just be sitting out there, enjoying the day.

Q. How many more Dec. 7 anniversaries do you think you have left?

A. (Pope) John Paul II said we could live to be 120, so I'm working on 120. He was the pope, so I guess he could say that.

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com.