A life in service to others
Veteran Sterling Cale saved many sailors during the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941. Today, at 102, he’s still sharing his story and hoping to spare people from the ravages of war.
Sterling Cale would always sit far from the water’s edge when taking his children to the beach. Even in those rare moments when he’d muster the courage to jump in — like the time his son nearly drowned — Cale would freeze before his body even hit the water’s surface.
Only in recent years did son Sterling learn the source of his father’s aquaphobia — the Pacific Ocean, whose cold touch would immediately send shivers down Cale’s back and force him to relive the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.
“The only thing I can remember about Pearl Harbor is I want to forget it,” says Cale.
Veteran Sterling Cale, 102, continues to share his Pearl Harbor experience with others, with the support of his children, Estralita and Sterling
The centenarian, who just turned 102, is one of the last survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack who still resides in the islands. Yet despite his elderly status and sincere desire to forget, the Navy veteran continues to bravely share his story with guests at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center and with students across the nation.
It’s something he’s been doing regularly since 1974, and that’s a good thing. Cale educates so others won’t forget and repeat the awful mistakes of war.
“He didn’t volunteer until 1974 because Pearl Harbor actually haunted him,” explains Cale’s daughter, Estralita Cale Hoover. “He wanted to put it all behind him. He didn’t want to even reflect on it, but he put himself together … and he decided that he was going to be in the present and be positive about everything.”
In recalling that fateful day 82 years ago, Cale, then a pharmacist’s mate, and others had to work quickly to pull sailors from the burning, oily waters of Pearl Harbor. To avoid the flames, they swam underwater while frantically searching for survivors.
Cale wound up saving between 20 and 40 people following the attack, according to his son.
For his noble efforts, the veteran received several military honors, including Silver and Bronze stars and Purple Hearts. He also was awarded a Submarine Combat Patrol insignia with three battle stars.
Despite the trauma of war, Cale has tried to live his life in service to all creatures, including animals. It’s a characteristic he developed while growing up on a farm in Illinois and routinely caring for wounded livestock. The willingness to help those in need continued during his time in Saigon (Cale served in three wars: World War II, Korean and Vietnam), where he once tied a wheel to an injured animal’s leg so it could remain upright and mobile.
“Helping others started with that, to do good for those who are injured,” says Sterling, who’s following in his father’s footsteps by serving in both the Navy and Army.
Cale’s daughter says her father has always exemplified what it is to sacrifice for others.
“He always told me that he wanted to continue our country’s great legacy and to remember the sacrifices people made,” she says. “He told me he went to war to save us, so we didn’t have to go, we could stay home, we didn’t have to see the war.”
To learn more about Cale, check out his son’s book, A True American: The Story of Pearl Harbor Survivor, World War II, Korean and Vietnam War Veteran, which is available on Amazon.