On the morning of December 7, 1941, Sterling Cale had just finished up a long night of work. He was a pharmacist's mate in the 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.
"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, he 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, it rolled over.
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. Sterling 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, it burned for two-and-a-half 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." He still tears up when remembering what it was like.
Funny story: When he 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 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 Sterling's job, along with a detail of 10 men, to remove bodies from the burning 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. Sterling tearfully remembers seeing ashes blowing across the deck of the ship. It took him a minute to realize that they were the cremains of young men. They had burned to ashes when the ship exploded. The fire was so intense that it even melted ID tags and guns. Overall, Sterling'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.
Sterling later served at Guadalcanal before going "blue to green" and joining the 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 Army as a sergeant major.
It is not surprising that his service didn't end there! After his military service, he 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.
Even though some consider the 91-year-old "retired," he may argue otherwise. He stays active and volunteers three mornings a week at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center. He also participates in videoconference 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.
Sterling and other treasured Pearl Harbor Survivor volunteers can be found at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings. The survivors love to greet visitors, shake hands, take photos, and share their stories so the lessons will not be forgotten.