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By Mike Sunderland
Thoughts from a Grey-haired Point of View 

Biggest Man in My World

 

November 3, 2021 | View PDF

Allow me to tell a wee bit about the one person I feel was the biggest man in the world.

Big, large, great, grand, impressive, distinguished, striking, and exceptional are used to describe people we esteem. From my perspective I can truthfully say that I knew the biggest man in the world. He stood taller than any other regardless of the means of measurement.

To me he was the strongest, wisest and gentlest of men. There was none more trustworthy, honest or courageous than this man. When it came to triumphing against overwhelming odds this giant among giants stood in a class all his own. The noblest of the noble, he can hold his head high among the kings of Earth. At the same time, though it may appear a contradiction, this giant was humble, never putting himself above others, and was compassionate, kind, loving, giving.

Who is this paragon? No living man could possibly be all that I claim for this man. To the few in this world who knew him, he was Calvin Kenneth Sunderland – child of the Depression, man of the Second World War, husband, father, and over comer of insuperable odds. I know him as my father, friend and steadfast anchor in any storm. I just call him “dad.”

Physically dad towered over me for most of my life. For 70 years he topped 6 ft 2, making him taller than me by three inches. That fourth of a foot may not seem like much but I always had to tilt my head up to look him in the eye. Later in life dad looked up at me as the ravages of age and disease bent and bowed his once strong back. In my heart and mind he stands tall and I still look up to him.

During my childhood, I feared dad. He could and did mete out discipline with a stern hand. It didn’t take me long to learn how to avoid getting a spanking. All I had to do was be obedient. As I matured this was expanded to include being the best I could be at every endeavor. Then I didn’t fear getting the belt as much as I dreaded disappointing dad. I wanted his respect and approval more than anything in the world. Dad gave it freely and fear turned into respect and abiding love. There is no way I can adequately describe dad, but there is one story that illustrates the kind of man he is.

Dad enlisted in the wartime U.S. Navy when he turned 17 years of age. After boot camp in San Diego he was transferred to the U.S.S. Portland, a heavy cruiser serving with the Pacific Fleet. The Portland, lovingly called “Sweet Pea” by her crew, ended WWII with 18 battle stars and numerous unit citations, making her the second most decorated ship to come out of WW II. Dad served aboard the Portland through some of the most ferocious and deadly fighting the Navy ever experienced. Dad was proud of his ship and his service in the Navy, but he never bragged or told stories about himself. His shipmates always came first. Try as I might I was rarely able to pry out personal details of his Navy adventures.

It was one of those rare occasions when I learned he was aboard the Portland the night she engaged the Imperial Japanese Navy’s battleship Hiei.

The Hiei carried 14-inch main batteries, while the Portland could only throw 8-inchers back. And that was all dad would say. Years later I learned the full story. During this action, Nov. 13, 1942, the Portland took a torpedo hit on the rear starboard quarter, which blew off both inboard propellers, jammed the rudder 5 degrees right, and jammed number 3 turret in train and elevation. A 4-degree list was quickly corrected by shifting ballast, but the steering damage could not be overcome and the ship was forced to steam in circles.

Forced to face the Hiei alone, the Portland slugged it out with her powerful adversary for almost 5 hours. Her first salvo of six 8-inch shells knocked the Hiei dead in the water. Most battle histories make light of this engagement, and many omit it completely when dealing with the Naval battles of Guadalcanal. Through determined research I learned that the Portland suffered the loss of almost two-thirds of her officers and petty officers, along with close to 200 crewmen. Yet no man aboard failed to do his duty. During the fight most of the upper decks were on fire and the electric generators were knocked out. Live ammunition was passed from the magazines through fires so the Portland could continue to fight.

Morning’s light saw the IJN Hiei receiving her deathblow from U.S. Navy dive bombers, which receive the credit in most accounts. The Portland was still afloat and starting repairs, her captain reporting, “crew morale high, and ship battle ready.” Admiral Bill Halsey wrote a special commendation for the ship and crew of the Portland for her part in breaking up the Japanese effort to disrupt the landing of American troops and to bombard Henderson Field.

Dad could have bragged up a storm about being in that fight. All he ever said was, “I was on board the Sweet Pea that night.” He served on the U.S.S. Portland from April 1943 to June 1944.

All this was balanced by a sense of humor that I can only try to emulate. No matter how awful the situation dad was able to find something amusing to joke about. He was able to be optimistic about the future. One of his favorite sayings was his definition of an optimist: An optimist is a 70-year-old man planting trees that take 100 years to mature. Shortly after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s he wrote to me that, “I have good news.

I don’t have Alzheimer’s after all. I’ve still got it all together. I just can’t remember where I put it!” That was my dad.

Even in anger I never heard him use foul language. His sense of morality was higher and more refined than most preachers I’ve known. To my knowledge he never lied or cheated, never failed to keep a promise and always treated others according to the Golden Rule. I’m still striving to live the life he modeled.

From him I learned the meaning of love and commitment. Barbara, his wife of 62 years, always came first. No matter the cost, dad did everything he could to provide, protect and cherish her. Her happiness was paramount. Until after I graduated from high school dad often worked 2 jobs to provide for us. Times were hard and money even harder to come by. I never felt deprived. Dad gave us all the time and love he had.

It was I who put him on a pedestal so high I felt I could never be his equal. One of the greatest gifts dad gave to me was to prove me wrong. During my 4th decade dad and I started communicating about things we never had before, things we had both taken for granted. I had interpreted his inner strength, his ability to go on regardless of obstacles, the wrong way.

To me he appeared to be just like John Wayne and all my other movie heroes. Dad opened my eyes and showed me a side of himself that I had completely missed – his humanity. He taught me it was all right to make mistakes and he showed me his. From him I learned a real man could cry and show emotion. During one of our talks, just before he lost his vocal cords to cancer, he said to me the four greatest words any father can say to his son: “I love you, son.” I knew the words were real.

There is not enough space for me to tell all there is about my dad. He lost his voice to throat cancer, and had a tumor removed from the inside of his skull, the result of a battle injury received that night of Nov. 13, 1942. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He could barely talk after his vocal cords were removed, had great difficulty walking, and his memories were slowly being taken from him.

He’s handled all this the same way he did his experiences aboard the Portland: no complaints. Though he was aware of what was happening to him, he continued to live each day to the fullest. No whining or worrying. He went on the best he could. After receiving the diagnosis, dad immediately made all the arrangements for his funeral. He did not want to burden Barbara or I.

The final gift he gave are the memories I have of him. Born Jan. 18, 1925 he died Nov. 4, 2007. Dad is the biggest man in my world. When he went home to be with Jesus he left a hole no other man can fill. I miss him.

 

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