By Herb Meeker
News Report Staff
Illinois American Legion Commander Cheri Stanton reminded her fellow veterans and auxiliary members the attack on Pearl Harbor 75 years ago was not just a story of defeat for America.
Speaking at the 70th annual Teutopolis Pearl Harbor Breakfast Sunday, the first female Illinois Legion State Commander spoke about the amazing comeback America accomplished after that terrible day on Dec. 7, 1941.
The observance came on Wednesday for the 75th anniversary of the Japanese aerial assault on American military installations on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. The attack propelled America into World War II and eventually shifted the balance of power in favor of the Allied forces opposing Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan.
The sneak attack by the warplanes of the Japanese Imperial Fleet sank or seriously damaged 18 of the 96 American ships anchored in the Navy yard that December morning. Many of the ships in Pearl Harbor, as well as the aircraft carriers safely at sea, came back to destroy several of the Japanese aircraft carriers within six months at the Battle of Midway. Some of the American battleships battered in 1941 at Hawaii came back to help stop the Japanese at Leyte Gulf in 1944, the greatest naval battle in history.
The assault in 1941, which Stanton called a “massive killing spree,” was a shock for the survivors. It left more than 2,400 men and women dead. She told of how collecting the dead left horrific memories for one of the survivors she met through the American Legion.
Stanton recalled the words of Legionnaire Sterling Cale when he talked about his duty as a 20-year-old pharmacist mate on body recovery duty on the U.S.S. Arizona, where more than 1,100 died from four bomb hits, including 23 sets of brothers.
“He talked about the charred bodies and the black ash,” Stanton recalled as she wiped away tears. Cale would go on to serve at Guadacanal and also in the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Stanton also told of the tragic story she heard from Bob Addobati, a Pearl Harbor survivor and disabled veteran. He talked about the battle of the military bands on the night of Dec. 6. There was great music and conversation afterwards with some of the band members, including band performers on the Arizona.
“He told how in just eight hours all those band members would be dead when the battleship was hit,” Stanton said. Addobati would lose his leg in a torpedo attack later in World War II and he would go on to raise a family and work for the Postal Service.
Stanton said Pearl Harbor united the country. Japan would pay the price for that attack. It would be totally defeated by 1945.
Local veterans started gathering for the Pearl Harbor Memorial Breakfast in 1946. For the first few years, many of the veterans wore their military uniforms. The breakfast is a gathering hosted by Teutopolis American Legion Post 924 and gains assistance from different volunteer groups.
The idea behind the breakfast today is to never forget that day of infamy or the bravery displayed by those under attack that Sunday morning in Hawaii.
The valor displayed at Pearl Harbor would inspire veterans among the firefighters, police officers and emergency responders on Sept. 11, 2001. And now their example has taught another generation of Americans about duty and sacrifice, she said.
Stanton volunteered for Navy duty during the Vietnam War. She served as an air traffic controller. Gaining a college education through the G.I. Bill, she became an elementary educator. She became active in the American Legion, as well as a dual member with the Legion auxiliary, and went through the Legion leadership ranks before she was named Illinois State Legion Commander last summer. She is the first female in the department’s history.
She was inspired to join the Navy because of her aunt, Nova Meredith, the first female Navy Chief Petty Officer at the Great Lakes Naval Facility. Meredith was one of many women changing the face of the American military during that war. That tradition is continuing.
“Next year, we will have our first female National Commander for the Legion,” Stanton said with pride after her speech.
But she made it clear that there is equity with her position in Illinois.
“I’ve had such a good reception at all the Legion events since I became Commander. The Legionnaires treat me like ‘Big Sis,’” she said with a smile.