10 ‘sterling’ insights in life of Pearl Harbor survivor

1204-05Review by Bill Doughty

Another Pacific Historic Parks (2014) booklet focuses on “A True American: The Story of a Pearl Harbor Survivor, World War II, Korean and Vietnam War Veteran.” Here are 10 insights in a remarkable life of a member of the “Greatest Generation” narrated by Sterling R. Cale to his son Sterling V. Cale.

1. Medical: Cale served as a pharmacist’s mate, forerunner to Navy hospital corpsmen. Early in his career, he passed out during a circumcision when the patient, supposedly anesthetized, started screaming. He thought of himself first as a farm boy from Illinois, but he had dreams of one day becoming a surgeon, dreams that were cut short later in life when he injured his thumb. < strong>2. Dec. 7, 1941: Cale worked the night shift at the Pearl Harbor naval dispensary, a shift that ended in the morning of Dec. 7. He said he walked outside to witness Japanese planes attacking Battleship Row. He broke into the armory and helped hand out Springfield rifles to fellow Sailors.

3. Rescue: During the attack, Cale rushed toward USS Oklahoma and helped with the rescue of Sailors from the waters of Pearl Harbor. “Some of them were already dead, some burned, some wounded and some were just tired,” he remembers.

4. Recovery: After the attack, he was assigned— along with 10 other men —to “ride out to the USS Arizona and start recovering bodies.” Cale climbed into a heavy suit and diver’s helmet, something out of Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” His description of what he finds beneath the surface is disturbing and haunting.

5. Risk: Cale took risks. He was written up for breaking into the armory (even though Pearl Harbor was under attack). And he was court-martialed (but cleared) for keeping a war diary. ” I meticulously recorded the precise location of every item and body part” to help with identification. He eventually earned commendation instead of condemnation; luckily, common sense would trump military bureaucracy.

6. Action: During World War II, he served with the 1st Marine Division at Guadalcanal, then saw action at Saipan, Tinian, Bougainville and Espiritu Sato, later serving aboard USS Panang (AG 41), named for “the U.S. gunboat that had been sunk [by Imperial Japan’s military] in Chinese waters.”

7. Love: Sterling Cale met beautiful Victoria Vienna Ventula in Honolulu in 1941. They courted, married and started a family. “We managed to live with two children on my $21 monthly military salary,” he said. Cale shares poignant family photos in the booklet.

8. Korea: Cale left the Navy for the Army “with no break in military service” and headed to Korea with the 5th Regimental Combat Team, serving with the 24th (later 25th) Infantry Division as a field medic. “The North Koreans booby trapped everything: cans, bodies, vehicles and foxholes … I remember sleeping with a grenade in each hand because North Korean soldiers would come in to the sleeping areas to slit throats.” It’s no wonder that Cale was affected. “Later in life, my family could not touch me when I was asleep or I would jump up, prepared to kill them.” He faced and overcame “post traumatic stress disorder.”

9. Vietnam: Like the war itself, Cale’s involvement in Vietnam was complicated. It started in 1955 and continued through the ‘60s, with assignments that included military advisor, intelligence, logistics, medic and hospital administrator. Cale briefly discusses his work in Da Nang and support missions to the Philippines, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

10. Legacy: “A True American” concludes with an epilogue from Sterling Cale that shows his acceptance of the realities of life. “Pearl Harbor haunted me, but I did my best to put the past behind me, focus on the present and be positive about everything. Today, Sterling Cale volunteers at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center where he can talk about his role in the Pacific War and other wars in the Pacific.

This booklet offers other interesting tidbits about Cale’s life: as an orphan, working with the Tom Mix circus, book binding and repair at the public library, musician (trumpet and drums), Eagle Scout, Navy “frogman” training, partying with “gold hair” tobacco heiress Doris Duke aboard her yacht, and serving as NCOIC of the honor guard and burial detail at National Cemetery of the Pacific (Punchbowl).

Thanks, once again, to YNCM (ret.) Jim Taylor, Pearl Harbor survivors Liaison and honorary USS Utah survivor, for recommending this read. See a related Navy Reads post about another PHVC volunteer, Uncle Herb Weather-wax: “From Street Gang to WWII Veteran.”

(Doughty writes and posts to Navy Reads www.navy reads.blogspot.com on weekends. The Navy Reads blog supports the CNO’s professional reading program and related books.)

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