Local family's artifacts tell a personal story of strength, heroism during Pearl Harbor attack

Posted at 1:02 PM, Dec 08, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-08 13:03:05-05

It’s said that time heals all wounds.

The wounds opened by the attack on Pearl Harbor 75 years ago were forgotten by some over time. For those families linked to the more than 2,000 that were killed that day, a declared victory four years later could never heal the pain caused by that day.

The attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor led to America’s involvement in World War II, a war would end four years later in 1945. By the end of the war more than 400,000 Americans serving in the military had died.

For the family of 2nd Lt. Gordon Sterling, the real hurt from World War II happened on that fateful day in Hawaii.

Sterling, then 22, was killed in a dogfight over the waters of Pearl Harbor.

A letter from the War Department would later recount his courage under discouraging circumstances.

As the attack began, Sterling was well aware of the risk that lied ahead. It’s said that he ran toward his airplane, pausing only to hand his watch to a superior.

“Gordon was entering the plane and gave the watch to the crew chief and said, ‘Give it to my mother! I’m not coming home!’” said John Michalek, who married into the family.

Michalek, who’s wife was 2nd Lt. Sterling’s great niece, learned about the history of that day from Sterling’s brother — John.

John Sterling didn’t talk about his brother much in the years following his heroic death. As he grew older that changed.

Michalek works with cars, he owns several, so when he and John Sterling began to get to know each other he asked about the 1941 Buick that Sterling kept in the garage. He quickly learned that the Buick belonged to Gordon Sterling, the young airman who was killed in the Pearl Harbor attack.

“It was more than a car,” said Michalek. “It was his brother, and I think that’s how he treated the car throughout the time he had it.”

Gordon Sterling was allowed to bring the car with him to Hawaii because he was an officer. The car was at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese began their attack.

The original windshield is preserved, complete with a bullet hole that hit the car during the attack. The car, along with Sterling’s watch and a handful of other personal effects, would eventually be returned to his mother, and then his brother upon her death.

John Sterling rarely allowed anyone to touch his car, so when his health began to fail it was an honor that he turned to his grandson-in-law to perform repairs.

“He stood there and watched me every second,” said Michalek.

“And he really had never let anyone touch that car, so it was something to see him watching John,” said Amy Michalek, John Sterling’s grand daughter.

As time passed Michalek slowly began opening up about the story behind the car, his brother and the Pearl Harbor attack.

Military records available online show that Sterling was shot down during a dog-fight. His plane was hit multiple times, caught fire and crashed. He received credit with shooting down the Japanese foe he was originally pursuing.

“I just continue to reflect on it now,” said Amy Michalek. “Even moreso with my family. Raising my family now I’m making sure I can instill those same characteristics of strength and courage.”

It’s something the family is reminded every time they look at Sterling’s Buick, or see the famed watch left behind in the heat of battle.

On the 75th anniversary the Michalek’s 3-year-old son wore the watch that was once handed over as Sterling made it clear that he expected to die during the upcoming battle.

Asked who gave it to him, he pointed to a picture of his great-uncle that he never had the chance to meet.

“It feels great to have my son wear a hero's watch, and keep the tradition going,” said Michalek.

It’s a tradition that they want to keep going, not just within their family but for others.

“The more people that hear about Gordon’s story, it makes him live longer.”