James L. Cunningham

USS West Virginia

Article taken with permission from Palacios Beacon Online, Palacios, Texas

James L. Cunningham intended to join the Army Signal Corps, but he felt the waiting line for enlistees was too long, so he moved over to the shorter U.S. Navy line.

The Navy line led Cunningham to a front row seat at some of World War II's most dramatic events-- from Pearl Harbor, to Jimmy Doolittle's raiders taking off to bomb Japan, to the battles of the Coral Sea, Guadalcanal, Cape Esperance, the Aleutians and the Gilbert Islands.

Born in Palacios on Dec. 21, 1921 to Julius A. and Bertha Ellen Wolf Cunningham, Jimmie (as he was called then) was living at 304 Duson Avenue when he graduated from Palacios High School in the spring of 1940. In August, he and fellow 1940 graduate, Ray Wilborn, made the trip to Houston to join the Signal Corps.

"While we were waiting in line, I noticed the Navy line was shorter. Being lazy and impatient, I went over to the shorter line. I was examined, tested, and sworn in before Ray reached the door," Cunningham said. "My propensity for the easy way and impatience had earned me a contract for the next eight years of my life!"

After boot camp at San Diego, Calif., he was assigned to the battleship, USS West Virginia, at anchor in the harbor at San Pedro, Calif.

"I spent the next year as a Seaman Second in the Fire Control and Communications divisions," Cunningham said. "I was a Radioman Striker, assigned to radio repair in the transmitter room gang. I was learning electronics and a Navy specialty-- how to goof-off without getting caught."

On Dec. 7, 1941, Cunningham said his "guardian angel was working overtime."

When the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor, the West Virginia was anchored along with most of the U.S. fleet in the harbor. But, on that Sunday morning, Cunningham was diving into the surf off Nanakuli. "This was the first time, after more than six months of trying, that I had received the opportunity for this bit of uniquely Hawaiian recreation," he says.

"Informed of the action occurring around the point from us, we commandeered a bus and headed for the fleet landing. We were trying to get a motor launch when the second wave of 'Meat Balls' came in from over Hickham (airfield). I spent the rest of the day and the night on Ford Island then went aboard the Salt Lake City the next day."

The West Virginia was among the five battleships sunk on Dec. 7, but was one of three to be raised, rebuilt and to rejoin the fleet later in the war.

The USS Salt Lake City, returning from Midway Island where she had escorted carriers that were taking aircraft to the Marines stationed here, had escaped the Pearl Harbor carnage.

Here, in Cunningham's own words, is the rest of the story:

"Transferring to the Salt Lake City was fortunate for me. I got to know Capt. Ellis M. Zacharias, who had been in Tokyo as interpreter to the Mikkado during the earthquake of 1921.

"The 'Swayback Maru' (as the ship was called) was sister ship to the USS Pensacola. They were the most heavily gunned of the 10,000-ton treaty cruisers. The main battery was 10 eight-inch guns. The new Orlicon anti-aircraft gun mounts, fore and aft, port and starboard added to the five-inch secondary batteries gave the ship a very lethal force. Twin catapults, nesting two OS-2U's (observation scout biplanes), rounded out her armament. Under the command of Capt. Zacharias, the Salt Lake City was the happiest ship in the Navy.

"Standing out from Pearl after the Dec. 7 attack, the Salt Lake City went back to Midway on patrol. That gave us a unique experience. We almost missed Christmas entirely. At midnight we crossed the dateline from Dec. 24 to Dec. 26. It was late that day before we recrossed into the 25th.

"Toward the end of March '42, we were assigned screen duty with the Enterprise. Then, joining a task force accompanying the carrier Hornet out of San Francisco, we headed toward the land of the 'Rising Sun.'

"At 07:25 on April 18 we held our breath and prayed as we watched Jimmy Doolittle and his raiders take off in B-25 bombers from the deck of the Hornet. All 16 planes made it and disappeared over the western horizon. We didn't know who it was at the time, but we knew where they were headed.

"Back in Pearl Harbor we got liberty, then we were enroute to Brisbane to join the forces protecting northern Australia. The Battle of the Coral Sea in early May '42 was the first time major units of opposing navies never sighted each other. All the action was by aircraft against surface ships. Our 1.1" Pom-Pom guns got to show their extreme accuracy.

"The Salt Lake City and the Tangier carried out a deception through our communications system that enabled Admiral Halsey to surprise the Japs at the Battle of Midway. I didn't know who we were talking to, but I did know our transmitters were getting a workout.

"Leaving Brisbane we finally dropped anchor in Noumea where we were greeted with the disappointing news that we couldn't go to the Solomons with the invasion force, because we needed a six-week yard job to install TBS radio equipment.

"So, Mr. Myers, Rukamp and another man from the transmitter room went ashore and drew 'midnight stores.' Capt. Zacharias told the crew what Mr. Myers had done and what we needed to do. The crew cheered and we installed the system in five days. We tested the TBS with almost three hours to spare before we weighed anchor and set a course for Guadalcanal, with the invasion force.

"Life aboard ship was pretty dull until the first week in August 1942. The Marines went ashore on the seventh and we put in at Espiritu Santo, where I got to meet some of the native population. Their most endearing trait was their intense dislike of the Nipponese soldiers. Out Marines took advantage of this, trading cigarettes for ears.

"On my sister's birthday, 11 October 1942, we were in the Battle of Cape Esperance, trying to interdict the 'Tokyo Express' reinforcing and resupplying their forces on Guadalcanal. I witnessed tracers from our line of ships streak toward a Jap ship, converging on target. The vessel broke in two pieces, lifted out of the water and disappeared in a few seconds. The Salt Lake City sustained a hit that night that sent us back to Pearl Harbor for some yard overhauling.

"On the return to Pearl we stopped in Fiji and then in the most beautiful harbor I had ever seen as we dropped anchor for several days in Pago Pago, American Samoa. (I later saw another harbor that compares favorably, Sasebo, Japan).

"Pearl Harbor gave us a royal welcome. We got anything we asked for in the line of yard services. It compared to that received by the Yorktown a few months earlier.

"Finishing our repair at Pearl, we sailed north to relieve the Japs of their duties on Kiska and Attu. In the early months of 1943, it was decided that Japan's northern outposts were to be retaken, so the Salt Lake City and the Richmond were dispatched to interrupt their supply lines. We had sunk a few ships and were between the Aleutian and Kommandorski island chains when we encountered a Japanese convoy.

"At dawn March 28, 1943, we were surprised to be facing superior numbers and some incredibly accurate gunnery. The flank speed of our ship was given at 31.4 knots, but we were steaming at better than 32 knots until we got hit. When the Japs knocked out our engine room, the skipper had us signal the Richmond 'Mike Speed Zero.' We continued to fire eight-inch rounds from the after guns while the engineers were madly patching the engine room.

"When the battle was over, Pearl sent us to Mare Island for regunning. This was the first time I had been stateside since 1940 when the West Virginia cleared Santa Catalina enroute Hawaii. In June '43, we returned to help finish taking Kiska and Attu from the Nippers.

"Rejoining the forces operating out of Pearl Harbor, in January of 1944 the Salt Lake City was assigned the task of clearing Wotje, the Gilbert Islands. Carrier planes bombed the atoll. We stood off, out of range of Japanese shore batteries, and lobbed round after round of 8-inch anti-personnel projectiles at the pill-boxes. I have pictures that John Ford shot of Wotje shore battery splashes just short of our ship.

"When we tied up in Pearl Harbor this time, I left the fleet for stateside duty.

"My authorized decorations were: Good Conduct w/one Star; Victory in Pacific; American Theatre w/one Star; Asiatic-Pacific Theatre w/eight Stars; Presidential Unit Citation; and Pearl Harbor Survivors Medal.

"Of the ribbons and medals, I am most proud of the A-P Theatre award. It is a constant reminder that God has a purpose for me. There were several times He could have ended my stay here and He didn't allow a hair be singed. I think He needed a good sample of a bad example. Egotistical me, at the time I just knew I was lucky and live forever."

Cunningham was in the Navy until July 1948, with more of his tour including a visit to Japan. After one month short of eight years, he received his discharge at Treasure Island, San Francisco, with the rank of Electrician Tech, First Class.

He later married Deloris Pauline Lynn, whom he met in Tyler. There are two daughters, Vivian Ellen Gorkmen of Tyler and Becky Boggio of Longview; a son, Bryan of Jacksonville; and two grandchildren.

Thanksgiving 2000

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