PETERSBURG — The two deadliest foreign attacks on United States soil are 9/11 and the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Stephen Cease was a witness to both, as a child living near the U.S. naval base on Oahu, Hawaii, and as an adult visiting Virginia.
“They were both huge disasters with large death totals,” the 88-year-old St. Petersburg resident said. “Such tragedy.”
Around 2,400 died in the attack on Pearl Harbor and nearly 3,000 on 9/11.
Cease’s eyewitness account of 9/11 is limited to seeing smoke rising from the Pentagon as he sat safely in a hotel room.
He had a closer look during the attack that occurred 80 years ago and led to U.S. military involvement in World War II.
“I watched from the top of a hill that was about 11 miles away,” he said. “I could hear the explosions. It was nothing but an inferno.”
The bombing is considered a sneak attack, but Cease said no one on the island was surprised.
“We’d been waiting for something like that to happen,” Cease said. “It wasn’t if we would be attacked. We wondered when.”
Cease recalled an outing to the beach with his father, Lysle Cease, who was a supply officer on the USS New Orleans moored in Pearl Harbor, and a commander from the same ship.
“We were driving to Waimea,” he said. “The commander asks my dad when he thinks it will happen. My dad turned around and suggested tomorrow. That was Dec. 6, 1941, the day before. He didn’t really know. But everyone always thought the next day was the day.”
Cease was playing in his front yard on Dec. 7, 1941, when he saw the Japanese bombers fly over his house just before 8 a.m.
“I ran inside and told my dad,” Cease said. “My dad thought it was just a sham battle” to prepare the base for the real attack. “But then he turned on the radio and we heard it was the real thing.”
His father headed for the base. His mother, Alwyn Cease, was a nurse. She went, too.
“His mother said for him and his two sisters to get under the dining room table and stay there,” said Cease’s wife, Mary Ellen Cease, who has heard the story so many times that she can finish her husband’s sentences. “But, of course, they didn’t.”
They instead grabbed binoculars and headed for the tallest hill near home.
“It was pretty horrible-looking because there was so much black smoke,” Cease said. “The USS Arizona had been bombed.”
Cease admitted that he did not grasp the magnitude of the moment.
“I thought it was exciting,” he said. “You don’t think of all the dying that’s going on when you are 8.”
Cease later learned that his mother treated burn victims. He can’t recall being told what his father did that day.
Families were evacuated in the weeks that followed.
“They came and got our furniture near the end of December,” Cease said. “We had to move into an apartment on Waikiki.”
He visited Pearl Harbor in early 1942.
“I think we went to the commissary store,” Cease said. “It was just a total disaster. Ships were still smoking because of fuel on board.”
The following April, Cease, his mother and two sisters moved to California.
“I barely heard from my dad for the next two years,” Cease said. “We’d get letters, but he was part of the war.”
Cease would go on to fly refueling tankers in 49 combat missions during Vietnam and then pilot for Pan Am and United Airlines.
His father died in 1991 and mother in 2001. Both were cremated.
“After his mother died, his sister found a note his mother had written that said they could be buried together in Arlington National Cemetery,” Mary Ellen Cease said. “So, on Sept. 10, 2001, we were at Arlington for the full military funeral.”
The next day, Cease and his wife were having breakfast at a restaurant in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood when news broke of the attack on the World Trade Center. The Pentagon had been hit by the time they’d returned to their hotel.
“We watched it on television but could see the smoke of the Pentagon” from their hotel window in Georgetown, a few miles away, Cease said. “I witnessed two historic tragedies. But that’s not something to brag about. A lot of people died.”
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