Editor's note: This story continues from last week's story of how Richard Cunningham joined the Navy and wound up at Pearl Harbor.
It had been a hell of a day for the U.S. Navy in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The ships in the harbor had been attacked by 353 Japanese planes in two waves, killing approximately 2,400 people.
Hewitt resident Richard Cunningham was right in the thick of it all, and had spent the day picking up oily, injured sailors from the water. “You don’t pick up the dead,” he said. “You pick up the ones that were alive.”
For Cunningham, this was just the beginning. He spent the night sleeping at dock 1010. The next day, he was tasked with helping firefighters put out the fires on the ship. His job was to assist the tugboat Hoga. They went out Monday afternoon, stayed all Monday night and worked through the afternoon of the next day until the fires were out.
It was less than two weeks later when Cunningham’s mother got a telegram saying her son was missing in action. “My mother didn’t eat for three days,” he said. On the third day, she received a second notice saying he was alive and well.
Cunningham had bought his mother a brooch for a Christmas present the day before Pearl Harbor. It was in the locker of the USS Virginia, which also contained many sailing and rowing medals and trophies from various competitions.
When Cunningham was cleared to check out his locker, everything was burnt except the brooch. He was able to save it for his mother. It was later donated to the Nimitz Museum in Fredericksburg.
After these harrowing events, Cunningham was transferred to the Naval Ammunition Depot West Loch, Oahu, where he helped process ammo records from sunken ships. He did that for a year before being transferred to San Francisco in New Construction (of ships), where he became boatswain mate. He was looking forward to the trip because he had a crew and a Chinese cook. He was dreaming of delicious meals.
“When the Pacific water hit the ‘potato patch,’ that Chinese cook got sick and stayed sick for the rest of the trip back to Pearl Harbor,” he said.
His new assignment was on a converted tuna boat that was outfitted with guns. They were on their way to the Pacific theater, with the first stop at Pago Pago, Samoa. From there, they traveled to the Fiji Islands and picked up Fiji soldiers — all over 6 feet tall with guns and razor-sharp machetes — before heading to New Caledonia, and ultimately, Guadalcanal.
At the time, Cunningham didn’t know what the Fiji soldiers were for, but in Guadalcanal, they pulled the ship in among some low overhanging trees. “The Fiji soldiers jumped onto land and disappeared into the dense underbrush without a twig cracking,” he said.
A Japanese radio station on the southern tip of Guadalcanal was putting the men in harm’s way. When they moved to a designated place to pick up the Fiji soldiers, they said they had completely destroyed the radio station, causing an end to the sinking of many ships, men and supplies.
Their next stop was to be New Georgia, which Cunningham said they were going to invade because an airfield was located there. They were in Rendova, near the Munda Point airport. The Japanese planes would fly over, and Cunningham could look up and see the open bomb bay doors. He once jumped on a gun – barefoot – trying to shoot the plane down.
Cunningham was eventually transferred to another ship when they hit a reef. He was hoping he could go home. Instead, he was transferred to another boat. He also was promoted to chief boatswain mate in January 1944.
He went all over the Pacific theater before he was honorably discharged in August 1946, after serving six years in the Navy. This included the naval base at Russel Islands, an invasion of Treasury Islands and Bougainville. His last place to serve was the West Coast in California.
Cunningham went to Ohio State University for a year before attending Baylor for two years and then TCU. In 1952, he moved to Waco and has been here ever since. In 1984, he married Patty Westerfield from Crawford. They’ve been married 34 years. There is a total of 23 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
He handled legal affairs for a utility company with nine branches in over three states. He also worked at Rocketdyne for a time.
Today, at age 97, Cunningham has told his story many times. He once was asked to participate (all expenses paid) in a Pearl Harbor ceremony in Morgantown, West Virginia. He talked to numerous groups of students.
When Cunningham tells it, he doesn’t regret it, nor does he suffer from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I’m glad I served,” he said.