Pearl Harbor Survivor Sterling Robert Cale Dies at 102

by Braxton Taylor

Sterling Robert Cale, a Pearl Harbor survivor who served the United States throughout World War II, and also in Korea and Vietnam, and then met thousands of visitors as a volunteer at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, died Jan. 20 at his home in Aiea. He was 102.

Cale’s son, Sterling Ventula Cale, remembered him as “a humble leader.”

“He is the reason I am the man I am. Growing up with my father gave me that foundation. He taught me all the things that later on I would use in my military career for 23 years, and beyond.”

“My mother used to get so mad at him because he’d give me a loaded .45 (pistol) to hold, or he’d show me how protective masking worked, but when I became an NBC NCO (Nuclear Biological Chemical warfare Non-Commissioned Office) I was one of only two guys in the entire platoon who know how to react going through a (simulated) chemical battlefield. Those are the things that I remember him for, and they did well for me, and then for me and my troops later in life.”

Sterling Robert Cale was born and raised on a farm in Illinois. He enlisted in the Navy after high school and scored so high while training as a pharmacist mate that he was given his choice of duty station.

Cale chose Hawaii.

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Cale had just gone off duty after an overnight shift as a hospital corpsman at the Pearl Harbor dispensary when he heard gunfire and saw puffs of smoke. At first he thought it was surprise training exercise, then he realized that the aircraft overhead were Japanese and the attack was for real. On his own initiative, Cale broke into an arms locker to get rifles for himself and several other sailors, an unauthorized act for which he was initially told he’d be court-martialed but was later commended for.

Cale also distinguished himself by commandeering a small boat and leading two other sailors in pulling survivors — and the dead and dying — from among the patches of burning oil in the harbor. Cale’s training as a diver then got him assigned to the team that spent several days removing human remains from the sunken wreck of the USS Arizona.

Pearl Harbor was only the start of Cale’s wartime serv­ice. He was sent to Guadalcanal in the South Pacific to serve as a medical corpsman with the Marines, and later as the pharmacist’s mate aboard a submarine.

In 1948, Cale transferred to the Army and saw war-zone service in Korea and Vietnam. He retired with the rank of command sergeant major.

Sterling Ventula Cale says he and his sister wondered for years why their father stayed away from the ocean when they went to the beach.

“I finally asked my father 20 or 30 years later, and he said that whenever he stepped in or touched the Pacific, he’d immediately go back to Dec. 7, the burning flash in the burning oil and all that stuff. The PTSD. Because he was a strong swimmer he had to swim under the burning oil to get these guys — skin falling off, some already dead, some badly wounded, some dying.”

Following his retirement from government service, Cale became a popular volunteer at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, speaking to school groups, signing copies of his book, “A True American: The Story of a Pearl Harbor Survivor, World War II, Korean and Vietnam War Veteran,” for visitors from around the world, and celebrating birthdays with family members and well-wishers outside the park bookstore.

“My father was a very humble guy,” Sterling Ventula Cale said. “Like most of the servicemen of that era, they never said anything about their wartime experiences. Then one day we’re over here at the battleship Missouri with his grandsons, and he was talking to them about the signing (of the surrender documents Sept. 2, 1945), and other people on the ship heard him and they all started gathering around him. Someone asked ‘Were you there?’ and he said ‘Yes, I was,’ and he started talking about his experiences on Dec. 7 itself and all of those things.”

“But remember, he’s been through three wars, and we’re just talking about one battle in one of them.”

Cale celebrated his 102nd birthday in November.

Survivors also include his daughter, Estralita Cale Hoover, and four grandchildren.

Funeral services will be held March 7 at Hawaii State Veterans Cemetery in Kaneohe.

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