A Rising Sun was the first sign to Sterling R. Cale that something was off. But rather than the sun, it was Mars, the god of war, that would become his uninvited and all too-frequent companion throughout a military career that spanned from World War II through the Vietnam War.
Cale was a 20-year-old Navy hospital pharmacist mate stationed at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. On that fateful morning, he had just eaten breakfast and was walking to the receiving station when he noticed strange activity on battleship row.
“How come they are bombing the battle wagons?” he asked himself. “’No, we don’t train on Sunday! Must be some sort of National Guard or Reserve activity… But then, as I was watching, a plane came by with the Rising Sun on the fuselage, and I said, ‘My God, those are Japanese planes!’”
At that point, Cale’s life and the fate of the world were forever changed. Cale, a weak swimmer at the time, still recalls walking into shallow harbor waters to retrieve wounded and dead bodies over the next couple hours. “I only picked up 46 people,” he recently said to The American Legion. “Some of those people were dead already. Some of the people were badly burned, and I would try to pick them up, and the skin would come right off their hand. Some of them were just tired because they were blown off the ship or jumped and had to get ashore.”
Now 98, the life member of American Legion Post 17 in Honolulu has told the story of his Pearl Harbor experience thousands of times. It is a story that he frequently shares with the handful of living survivors and visitors to the Pearl Harbor National Memorial. “In the last 10 years we talked to 25,000 students from fourth grade on up to college. We told them all about it. Japan didn’t like to let anybody in their country know how they attacked our country and our ships.”
Just as Pearl Harbor marked the beginning of U.S. entry into World War II, it was the first exposure Cale had to combat. A farm boy from Macomb, Ill., Cale enlisted in the Navy with the intention of serving in the dirigible airship program at Lakehurst, N.J. The 1937 Hindenburg disaster led to the eventual cancellation of the program and a change in Cale’s plans. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Cale was attached to the 1st Marine Division, where he would serve as a corpsman at Guadalcanal.
“I actually treated the wounds of Japanese prisoners, the same as our Marines,” Cale said. Having been thoroughly immersed in Navy and Marine Corps life, Cale transferred to the U.S. Army in 1948. Two years later, he was asked by his captain at the 5th Regimental Combat Team, “Are you ready, Cale? You’re going to Korea.”
Cale didn’t just go to Korea – he was entrenched in North Korea. “We kept mowing down people coming across the Chinese river. I said, what’s wrong with people? They didn’t know when to stop. The Japanese didn’t know when to stop… Only thing different with the Chinese is when they came across the river, only one guy would have a weapon. The rest would have farm implements… scythe, sickle, machete, hoe, waiting for the first guy to get killed so they could get a weapon.”
The tenacity of the enemy wasn’t the only concern for Cale. Explosive booby traps set by North Koreans and subzero temperatures added to what he described as a hell on earth. “I slept at night with a grenade in each hand because the North Koreans were coming down and slitting throats. If anybody like that came near me, I’d just have to open one hand and we’d both be gone.”
It would not be Cale’s last experience in a war zone. In 1955, he was sent to Vietnam as part of a 19-member American team assigned to observe the French presence there. In total, Cale spent nine years in Vietnam as a soldier and later as a State Department official. His duties ranged from military intelligence to medical support. Lt. Col. John I. Gilbertson, an infantry advisor with the Cay Mai School, highlighted Cale’s service in the region with an effusive letter of commendation.
“In summary, the five years of total service in South Vietnam have really paid off,” Gilbertson wrote in the mid-1960s. “By teaching English to officers, soldiers, and their families, by his knowledge of the people, their language, customs and taboos, MSgt. Cale was able to realize the real, intimate trust, that is so often illusive in an advisory function. His model behavior and appearance, his friendly but businesslike manner with all Vietnamese peoples has produced outstanding results from an academic standpoint, but more importantly, it has meant untiring efforts to cement the bond of friendship between the Vietnamese people and the U.S. advisors representing the government of the United States, and is in keeping with the current policy of U.S. military participation in Civic Action Programs which benefit the people of an underdeveloped country.”
Cale, who would retire from the Army as a command sergeant major, continued his employment with the government until his final assignment working at the officers club in Hawaii’s Schofield Barracks. At age 83, his 57-year government career was over.
In the afterward of the book. “Sterling Cale: A True American,” Cale’ son, Sterling V. Cale, wrote.
“Through my father’s story, we have been able to share one man’s sacrifices for his country. We hope that the citizens of the U.S. continue to recognize the efforts of its military personnel and honor their unique stories. May we take the life of one man and his family to heart, and emulate it to continue our country’s great legacy and remember the sacrifices that were made for our freedom.”
Today, Cale is believed to be the last living military Pearl Harbor survivor still residing in Hawaii. His home is just a few miles from where the attack occurred. And he never forgets it.
“It’s always on my mind,” he said. “I know what happened, how it happened (but) I can never understand why it happened.”