The Life of Rear Admiral Winfield Scott Cunningham
By Greg R. Cunningham
The state of Wisconsin has many "badgers in blue" that helped build and protect this great nation. The Cunningham tradition of service began with Michael H.B. Cunningham and his brother Henry Harrison Cunningham who helped preserve the Union during the Civil War by volunteering in the 18th and 37th Wisconsin regiments. Michael Cunningham was a corporal in Company B, 18th Wisconsin Infantry and fought at the battles of Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and Allatoona and Private Henry Cunningham fought with Company C, 37th Wisconsin Infantry at Cold Harbor, Richmond and Petersburg.
Three of Michael H.B. Cunningham's sons from his second marriage, Earl Thomas, Hayes Farrell, and Kenneth Noble Cunningham served during World War I. Earl T. Cunningham was a Private in the Medical Training Department, Hayes F. Cunningham was a Private in Company B, 341st Infantry, and Kenneth N. Cunningham was a Seaman Second Class. The son of Henry Cunningham, Michael R. Cunningham, was a Sergeant First Class with the Cook and Baker School during WWI. Another of Michael's brothers, William Monroe Cline Cunningham, had three of his children serve in World War I. George Hugh Cunningham was a Corporal in the Army, and both William A. and Monroe C. Cunningham were Privates in the Marine Corp.
Michael H.B. Cunningham's son from his first marriage, Fredrick Cunningham of Rockbridge and Camp Douglas, Wisconsin, had two children serve in World War I. Chester M. Cunningham was a Yeoman, 3 Class, United States Navy, while Winfield Scott Cunningham was an Ensign in the United States Navy. While each Wisconsin Cunningham deserves a retelling of their lives, this story is about one of the most famous. Winfield Scott Cunningham would become the commander of the gallant heroes of Wake Island, the winner of the United States Navy Cross and retire as a Rear Admiral.
Winfield Scott Cunningham was born in Rockbridge, Richland County, Wisconsin on February 16, 1900 the son of Frederick Michael and Ruth Ella Moore Cunningham.1 The Cunningham family lived on a small farm north of Camp Douglas, which is now part of Volk Air Field. He attended high school through his junior year at Camp Douglas. On 18 August 1916, at the age of sixteen and six months, Winfield was admitted to the United States Naval Academy as a Midshipman.2 The quotas for admission to the Naval Academy where increased because of the war. Even with the increases, Winfield's body weight almost held him back. Winfield just made it over the minimum weight requirements. Winfield explained his predicament this way, "You had to weight at least 111 pounds at age sixteen, plus three pounds for each additional year or fraction thereof, and at sixteen and half my weight of 114 was precisely at the minimum. Upperclassmen gathered in circles about me those first few months, professing to be unable to believe the scarecrow from Wisconsin was real, marveling that so many bones could be held together by so little meat."3
His Naval Academy Class of 1920 graduated on June 6, 1919. Classes graduated early due to World War I. According to the United States Academy Annual Register for the graduating class of June 6, 1919, Winfield was ranked 184 in order of general merit out of a class of 467 members.4 Navigation was his best subject. The Lucky Bag (midshipmen's yearbook) had this to say about Winfield Scott Cunningham, "Scott is one of the few who say little but think and do much. He came to the Naval Academy from that well-known town of Camp Douglas, Wisconsin, but Winfield does not seem to have been raised on hops. During plebe year he hit the Weak Squad because he was only six feet in length, but he soon worked himself free by hard plugging in the gym. "Fish" also hit the submarine squad, but being a hard worker naturally, he soon had his afternoons to himself. From the way Scott has been growing out of his clothes and building up, it seems that he would become a football man if he had another year to go."5
After Winfield Scott Cunningham's graduation he received his commission to the rank of Ensign and was ordered to proceed to his first sea duty on the naval transport U.S.S. MARTHA WASHINGTON, stationed at Hoboken, New Jersey, on July 27, 1919.6 His first cruise was changed from ferrying troops home from France to a military mission in the Near East, which was being headed by General Harbord. The Navy was sent to investigate the question of whether the United States should take over the mandate for Armenia from the League of Nations. The Treaty of Sevres, France, between the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) and the allies (excluding Russia and the United States) liquidated the Ottoman Empire and virtually abolished Turkish sovereignty. In Asia, Turkey renounced sovereignty over Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Palestine, which became British mandates; Syria (including Lebanon), became a French mandate; and the kingdom of Hejaz. Turkey retained Anatolia, but was to grant autonomy to Kurdistan. Armenia became a separate republic under international guarantees.
Winfield would serve two years with squadrons based in Turkish waters while the Bolshevik Revolution raged on one side and Mustafa Kemal conducted his private war against the Greeks in Turkey on the other. When the MARTHA WASHINGTON arrived in Constantinople, Turkey Winfield was detached from his current duties and reported on October 12, 1919 to the U.S.S. GALVESTON based in Constantinople.7 Winfield was then detached from the GALVESTON and reported to the U.S.S. TATTNALL on December 22, 19198 and then on January 25, 1920 one more move placed Winfield on the U.S.S. SCORPION.9 The SCORPION would become Winfield's home for the next year.
Ensign Cunningham became involved in an embarrassing episode at his new duty station on the SCORPION. Winfield had a hand in ramming a British man-of-war. Here is how Winfield explained this unforgettable event; "Another officer and I invited two young ladies to dinner aboard our ship, the yacht SCORPION. Moved by the magic of the evening, we decided to go for a sail in one of the ship's sixteen-foot whaleboats, which were equipped with oars and sails and carried as lifeboats. It seemed a great idea at the time. We overlooked only two things: the six-knot current running from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmora, and the column of five British battleships riding majestically at anchor ahead of us. My shipmate was steering, but the sails obscured his vision and we had neglected to post a lookout in the bows. When someone shouted in alarm it was too late; we were riding the swift current down upon the ram of the battleship H.M.S. Royal Sovereign. Our troubles did not end there. We were carried along its side until the tops of our masts hit the ship's boat and we capsized."10
The misadventure continued as, "Searchlights pierced the gloom as we floated down the Bosporus. Powerboats put out from the battleship, and we were rescued. Luckily for me, I was the junior officer and did not have to face the captain. The incident was considered something of a blow to American prestige."
The Bolshevik Revolution in Russian was deteriorating for the American backed White Russians in 1920. The Red Army was approaching the Black Sea; and American navy ships were ordered to help evacuate White Russian refugees from the Transcaucasus, taking them to the Island of Prinkipo from which they would later migrate to Constantinople. Baron General Peter Wrangel, commanding the White Russian forces in the area pulled his forces back to the sea port of Sevastopol, Ukraine in a desperate rear-guard action. The U.S.S. WHIPPLE and destroyers U.S.S. OVERTON and U.S.S. HUMPHREYS arrived at Sevastopol on the morning of November 14, 1920 while hundreds of boats scurried about the harbor, often crammed to the gunwales with fleeing White Russians.11 The WHIPPLE stood by to evacuate selected individuals bearing passes from Vice Admiral McCully who was in charge of the evacuation. WHIPPLE's main battery was trained out and manned at all times. Armed boat crews carried evacuees out to the ship while her landing force stood in readiness. As her last boatload pushed off from shore, Bolshevik troops reached the main square and began firing on the fleeing White Russians. The WHIPPLE was the last American vessel out of Sevastopol. The WHIPPLE towed a barge loaded with wounded White Russian troops out of range of the Bolshevik guns and then turned the tow over to HUMPHREYS. VADM McCully stood on the bridge of the OVERTON and announced over a megaphone while the WHIPPLE past, "Well done WHIPPLE."
After a year with the SCORPION Ensign Winfield Scott Cunningham learned that he would be joining the WHIPPLE. He received notice from the Navy Bureau of Navigation that said; "in order to conform to the Navy Bureau's policy of ordering Ensigns (graduates of the Naval Academy) to capital ships or destroyers, you will be transferred to the U.S.S BORIE or another destroyer as soon as a transfer came be made."12 The transfer came through and he at first joined the U.S.S. BORIE which was also stationed in Constantinople, Turkey on January 12, 192113, but more pressing needs intervened again and Winfield was detached from the BORIE and he reported to the destroyer U.S.S. WHIPPLE on February 13, 1921.14 The WHIPPLE continued in the task of transporting refugees from the Island of Prinkipo to safe havens, and observing conditions prevailing at the ports visited in Romania, Russia and Asiatic Turkey. After the refugee rescue mission the WHIPPLE resumed her duties as station ship and mail carrying duties with the Near Eastern Naval Detachment.
A lawyer, S.J. Baker of Augusta, Wisconsin, sent a request to the Secretary of the Navy in a letter dated 26 March 1921, trying to find the location of Ensign Winfield Scott Cunningham and Seaman Chester Moore Cunningham, older brother to Winfield and believed to be on the U.S.S. Kansas. It seems there was a death in the family and their location was needed "to protect their interests as heirs in an estate".15 The Navy, Lieutenant Commander H.H. Crosby, responded with their respective locations. From the notice sent out it seems Seaman Apprentice Chester Moore Cunningham was now Yeoman, 3 Class and located on the U.S.S. Connecticut.
On May 2, 1921 the U.S.S. WHIPPLE and her division mates were being transferred to the United States Asiatic Fleet stationed in the Philippine Islands.16 They sailed for the Far East, transiting the Suez Canal and called at Bombay, India, Colombo, Ceylon, Batavia, Java, Singapore, Straits Settlements and Saigon, French Indochina. They arrived at Cavite, Philippine Islands on June 29, 1921. For the next four years the WHIPPLE would serve in the Asiatic Fleet, "showing the flag" and standing ready to protect American lives and property in strife-torn China. They operated out of Cavite in winter months, conducting tactical exercises in the Philippines until heading north to North China ports in the spring for operations out of Tsingtao.
On January 4, 1922 Ensign Winfield Scott Cunningham was detached from the WHIPPLE and reported for duty on the U.S.S. HURON17 and then reported to the U.S.S. TRACY, which was based at Canton, China on February 1, 1922.18 They would conduct torpedo and gunnery practices at Chefoo on the north coast of Shantung, China. On July 17, 1922 Winfield received orders to serve as second officer on the ancient gunboat U.S.S. PAMPANGA, part of the Fourth China Patrol Force, and was assigned the duty to patrol the river delta between Hong Kong and Canton, China and some two hundred miles up the Si Kiang into the interior around Wuchow, China in Kwangi Province.19 Winfield said, "We were expected to protect Americans caught in the crossfire between Sun Yat Sen and his enemies, but much of the time it was all we could do to protect the gunboat from its own weaknesses."20
Ensign Cunningham had a growing interest in the new developing Naval Aviation and he wanted to become part of it. Four years straight of sea duty was probably another incentive for a change of scenery. On August 30, 1922 he submitted his first request for aviation training from his duty station, U.S.S. PAMPANGA, Wuchow, China. His request was endorsed and forwarded by his Commanding Officer of the PAMPANGA, E.R. Johnson, and then on 2 Sept. 1922 by Commander of South China Patrol Force, Canton, China, G.M. Baum. The final endorsement came 18 Sept. 1922 'by direction', C.C. Badger, Commander in Chief, United States Asiatic Fleet, U.S.S. HURON, Flagship, Chefoo, China.21 He received his first denial from the Bureau of Navigation, by direction G.W. Steele, Jr., on October 24, 1922, but it did not defuse his interest. Other attempts would be made in the coming years.
Another far worse disappointment came on December 13, 1922 when the Supervisory Naval Examining Board denied his commission as Lieutenant (junior grade) owing to "deficiencies in Ordinance & Gunnery, Electricity and Seamanship." The Bureau of Navigation directed that "no action be taken upon the record of proceedings of the Supervisory Naval Examining Board in your case and you be ordered to appear in person before a Statutory Naval Examining Board for examination to determine your fitness for promotion."22 On December 14, 1922 he was detached from the U.S.S. PAMANGA and directed to proceed to Mare Island, California to report to the President of the Naval Examining Board at the Mare Island Navy Yard for re-evaluation. Orders moved slowly down the chain of command and Winfield did not receive his notice until January 17, 1923 while the PAMPANGA was stationed in Samshui, China.23
This would seem like a major setback to a young Ensign, but as you will soon see Winfield's firm determination and resolve would keep him going. This mark on his "Record of Service" did follow him for many years, which forced him to explain the circumstances surrounding the earlier poor fitness report. On April 27, 1935, then Lieutenant Cunningham, Executive Officer of VN-8 (Training Plane Squadron 8), United States Naval Academy, would write a short explanation to his current Selection Board asking them to consider the background concerning this time period by saying, "...The attention of the Selection Board is invited to the fact that such unfavorable comment as now appears on my record was when I was about twenty years of age, and while assigned to duty which was far from ideal as training for a young officer. ...The attention of the Selection Board is invited to the record of my performance of duty on my last cruise as offering an especially accurate criterion of my usefulness to the Navy. I was senior aviation officer for three years in the CALIFORNIA, and it is believed the record will show that my handling of the assignment in the opinion of my seniors was highly successful."24
Ensign Winfield Scott Cunningham arrived back in the United States on the U.S.S. CHAUMONT and reported to the United States Receiving Ship in San Francisco on March 31, 1923 for temporary duty.25 While the Examining Board waited for Winfield's fitness report which they requested on March 19, 1923 he was detached from the Receiving Ship and ordered to the Naval Inspector of Machinery, Todd Dry-dock & Construction Corporation in Tacoma, Washington on April 9, 1923 for duty in connection with the fitting out of the U.S.S. MILWAUKEE.26 Vindication came to Ensign Cunningham when the Naval Examining Board over ruled the former board and determined on May 3, 1923 that he was fit for promotion and backdated his promotion to Lieutenant (jg) effective June 7, 1922. 27
After four years overseas, newly appointed Lieutenant Winfield Scott Cunningham hoped for a little more shore duty, but upon completion of the Naval Examining Board review and his promotion to Lieutenant, he joined the light cruiser U.S.S. MILWAUKEE when she was commissioned, June 20, 1923, and served in her while she operated as a unit of Light Cruiser Division Scouting Fleet. They headed back to the Pacific, but this time to the South Seas. When the recruitment posters say, "Join the Navy and see the world" they were not kidding. This shakedown cruise went to Australia via Hawaii, Samoa, the Fiji Islands, New Caledonia, the Solomon's, Rabaul, the Caroline's and the Marshall's. Their visit to Australia was the first by any U.S. man-of-war since the White Fleet's cruise around the world in 1908.28 They were there in time for the Pan-Pacific Scientific Congress, which opened in Sydney August 23, 1923. The MILWAUKEE was fitted with the finest sonic depth-finding equipment and gathered knowledge of the Pacific during her route.
Naval Aviation was still in the back of Winfield's mind and he placed another request on October 30, 1923, while stationed with United States Fleet, Battle Fleet, Light Cruiser Division, Division Two, U.S.S. MILWAUKEE, Pearl Harbor, T.H., to be included in the aviation class commencing January 2, 1924.29 The request was endorsed by his Commanding Officer, U.S.S. MILWAUKEE, Captain W.C. Asserson, but again his wishes were denied for the moment. He was still determined to keep trying.
The U.S.S. MILWAUKEE was assisting in the settling of the Honduran revolution, off the coast of Tegucigalpa, Honduras during the spring of 1924. Winfield would later be awarded the Navy Expeditionary Medal on May 4, 1938, from the Chief of Bureau of Navigation, Adolphus Andrews, for "recognition of your service as a member of a landing force ashore in Honduras, from U.S.S. MILWAUKEE, March - April, 1924." While still in Honduran waters, Lieutenant (jg) Winfield Cunningham would submit the following request on April 22, 1924, "It is requested that upon arrival of this vessel in United States waters, I be granted 30 days leave and 10 days travel time. I have had no leave during the present leave year, and only 17 days during the last four years. It is further requested that upon the expiration of the leave that I be ordered at my own expense (italics added), to report aboard a vessel in the Battle Fleet, preferably a battleship. I have had no battleship duty since being commissioned. If leave request is granted my address on leave will be c/o Fred M. Cunningham, Camp Douglas, Wisconsin."30 Upon arrival of the U.S.S. MILWAUKEE in New York, New York on May 20, 1924 the Commanding Officer of the MILWAUKEE, Captain William C. Asserson, replied with a two-sentence response, "The request for leave is not approved at this time as his services cannot be spared. Should he be detached in accordance with terms of reference, leave is recommended at that time."31
The MILWAUKEE joined the Scouting Fleet in June 1924, and was assigned the mission of assisting the Army in its 'Around-the-World-Flight', which took the ship to Nova Scotia, Labrador, Greenland and Newfoundland. They then assisted in the Atlantic crossing of a German dirigible, later named the LOS ANGELES, by acting as station ship near Sable Island.32
Aviation was still a new thing in the Navy, and was looked on with disfavor by many in the senior ranks. The battleship was still viewed as the true fighting force of the Navy. Winfield still expressed his desire by saying, "I had acquired the urge one day to fly while at Pearl Harbor, and a Navy pilot took me on my first flight. I was hooked from the start."33 Winfield had put in periodic requests for flight training, but his October 23, 1924 application, endorsed by F.L. Pinney, Commanding Officer of the U.S.S. MILWAUKEE, was finally favorably acted upon.34 He was ordered to the Senior Medical Officer on the U.S.S. WRIGHT, at the Norfolk Navy yard for a physical examination. The examiner made his endorsement by stating, "Reported on October 30, 1924. Examined and found qualified for aviation duty involving actual flying." He was ordered to the Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida, for flight training. On February 14, 1925 Captain J.J. Raby, Commandant of the Aviation Training Schools, U.S. Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida, appointed Lieutenant (jg) Winfield Scott Cunningham, a Student Naval Aviator after receiving the required endorsements from his Commanding Officer, F.L. Pinney, U.S.S. MILWAUKEE, the Bureau of Medicine, and Bureau's of Navigation and Aeronautics.35
During flight training more good news arrived. Winfield received his appointment to Lieutenant (regular grade) effective the 7th day of June 1925.36 Lieut. Winfield Scott Cunningham went on to be designated a naval aviator on September 11, 1925, with the final approval being made on October 2.37 Hill Goodspeed, Historian, Emil Buehler Naval Aviation Library, National Museum of Naval Aviation, Pensacola, Florida, provided me with the following, "Our records reveal that Winfield Scott Cunningham's naval aviator number is 3226. He was ranked 12th out of a class of 45 aviation students and received a 3.47 in Ground School, 2.97 for Flight School, and 3.51 in Gunnery School for an over-all grade of 3.317."38 Upon the completion of his flight training, Winfield was ordered to report to the Commander, Aircraft Squadrons, Scouting Fleet stationed at the Naval Air Station in Hampton Roads, Virginia for his new assignment. Commander Harry Yarnell attached Lieutenant W.S. Cunningham to the Observation Plane Squadron Three, Aircraft Squadrons, Scouting Fleet based on the U.S.S. MILWAUKEE on December 18, 1925. He rejoined his shipmates on the U.S.S. MILWAUKEE on January 6, 1926 as a newly appointed Lieutenant (regular grade) with wings on his lapel.39
The MILWAUKEE embarked for its annual cruise to Panamanian waters. On one of Winfield's first trips off the MILWAUKEE's catapults, the cable jammed and his plane slid slowly and helplessly down to the end and plopped into the water. Winfield said, "At least she came down right side up. The fifteen-foot drop only shook me up, but major repairs were needed for the plane."40 Winfield's earlier request for a transfer to duty with a battleship was approved when he traded billets with an officer in the battleship U.S.S. OKLAHOMA. He received his orders on February 26, 1926 while the MILWAUKEE was at Balboa in the Canal Zone. On March 10, 1926 he proceeded immediately to the U.S.S. OKLAHOMA and reported to the aviation unit that was operating with Division 3, Battleships Divisions, Battle Fleet. He was made Senior Aviator in June 1926 with VO Squadron Two, U.S.S. OKLAHOMA, Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet.41 The battleship left for Puget Sound, but the aviation unit was temporary based ashore at the Naval Air Station in San Diego, California. They shifted the planes from floats to wheels, and underwent a heavier operations schedule.
It was here in San Diego, while on shore leave, that Winfield went on a blind date with Ms. Louise Dadey. It was love at first sight. In September Winfield returned to the OKLAHOMA, which was now in San Pedro, California. He made frequent trips to Los Angeles, in his Oakland roadster, when the ship was in port. By November, when Louise returned to her home in Oakland, they were engaged. They were married in February 1927 and honeymooned at Carmel, California. Two weeks later Winfield was back on the OKLAHOMA. The OKLAHOMA was going to continue with intensive exercises for that summers Midshipmen Cruise (senior year Naval Academy cadets), voyaging to the East Coast to embark midshipmen, carrying them through the Panama Canal to San Francisco, and returning by way of Cuba and Haiti, but new orders arrived for Lieutenant Cunningham. On April 13, 1927 Winfield received the following order, "You will regard yourself detached from Squadron Two, Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet, and report to the commanding officer of the U.S.S. LANGLEY."42 Winfield was to learn the trade of landing on the Navy's first aircraft carrier.
Lieutenant Cunningham reported to the LANGLEY on April 16, 1927, which was tied up at the dock in San Diego, California. Since the LANGLEY was stationary for the time being for carrier landing exercises, it was ideal duty for newly weds. The LANGLEY operated off the California coast and Hawaii and engaged in training fleet units, experimentation, pilot training, and tactical-fleet problems. Only one emergency arose during that time; the famous Dole Race was under way, and pilots were taking off in considerable numbers from Oakland, hoping to win the prize offered for the first nonmilitary flight from the mainland to Hawaii. Many planes were lost in the venture, and the LANGLEY sailed under emergency orders to look for survivors. Winfield said, "We flew patrol flights for about a week, combing the area for a sign of life, but no survivors were found."43
On October 14, 1927 Lieutenant Cunningham made his first request for post-graduate instruction in communication engineering for the class of 1928. He described his qualifications by saying, "I have completed nine years of commissioned service on 1 July 1928. I have qualified as a radio operator while a student at the Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida, in 1925, as an observation plane pilot on the U.S.S. OKLAHOMA in 1927, and as a communication officer on the U.S.S. LANGLEY in 1927. I agree not to resign during the course and to serve three years in the Navy after completion of the course."44 On October 15, 1927 Winfield received recommendations from his Commanding Officer, U.S.S. LANGLEY, Captain John H. Towers and Commander, Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet, Captain Joseph M. Reeves to take the post-graduate instruction in Communication Engineering. Towers stated, "Lieutenant Cunningham has been attached to this ship for a period of six months. He is sincere, hard working officer and I believe he will succeed in whatever specialty he desires to undertake." Captain Reeves had even higher praise when he said, "Lieutenant Cunningham is considered a very excellent officer. He is highly intelligent, well balanced, and very capable. His selection for this course will benefit the Navy as much as to Lieutenant Cunningham personally."45 Winfield continued with the "Old" LANGLEY until March 1928, but the application process for the Communication course would take years.
On March 26, 1928 Lieutenant Cunningham would receive orders to proceed to the Commandant, Fourteenth Naval District, by orders of Rear Admiral W.A. Moffett, Navy Department, Bureau of Aeronautics, Washington, D.C., for duty involving flying at the Naval Air Station, Pearl Harbor.46 He reported for duty on June 16, 1928 becoming the Commanding Officer of VP-1 Squadron and aide to the Commanding Officer Commander V.D. Herbster, U.S. Naval Air Station, Pearl Harbor, T.H. Pearl Harbor duty would continue for the next two years. Winfield's wife Louise was able to join him, which helped make this tour of duty much more enjoyable.
Winfield continued the application process for the Communication Engineering course sending his second request on October 26, 1928.47 On November 1, 1928 he received recommendations from his Commanding Officer, Pearl Harbor, Commander V.D. Herbster and from the Commandant, 14th Naval District, Rear Admiral George R. Marvell. On November 27, 1928 Winfield also received a recommendation from his old commander of the U.S.S OKLAHOMA, Captain Willis McDowell, who was presently with the Office of Captain of the Yard, Navy Yard, Washington, D.C. Captain McDowell stated, "Lieutenant Cunningham served under my command in charge of the aviation division of the ship. He proved himself conscientious, hard working officer, and a qualified radio operator for communications between ship and plane. I believe that he posses the characteristics necessary for successful completion of the communication course, and I recommend him for the detail."48 Winfield continued with his work duties, but always worked towards joining the next available communication class.
On December 31, 1929 Lieutenant Cunningham was nearing the end of his mandatory two-year shore duty and he requested sea duty in the Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet with VB, VF, VS or VP duty in that order of preference.49 On May 2, 1930, Captain John H. Towers, now the Assistant Bureau Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics in Washington, D.C., recommended "that Lieutenant W.S. Cunningham report to the Commanding Officer, VO Squadron 4B on the U.S.S. IDAHO after completion of the gunnery year ending June 1, 1930."50 On May 8, 1930 Lieutenant Cunningham received the exact orders as stated above, but the orders were modified on June 4th to instead report to the commanding officer of the U.S.S CALIFORNIA. Lieutenant Cunningham was asked to submit a report of the extent of his night flying activities to the Bureau of Navigation. His report dated 13 June 1930 showed he had completed 21 night landing for a total of 11.45 hours as pilot using plane types UO-1, PD-1, and OL-8.51
Lieutenant Cunningham reported for duty on the CALIFORNIA July 3, 1930. The CALIFORNIA was in need of an officer of proper rank to be assigned as senior aviator. During this next period of sea duty, he would serve three years of catapult duty aboard the battleship U.S.S. CALIFORNIA, flagship of Battle Fleet with additional duty with Battle Force. On April 1, 1931 Cunningham was ordered from Squadron 4B on the CALIFORNIA to Squadron 2B on the same ship and on July 1, 1931 he would return to VO Squadron 4B.
Lieutenant Cunningham was still determined as ever to join the next Communication Engineering course and submitted another request on November 20, 1931, while the CALIFORNIA was in San Pedro, California. In addition to the earlier list of qualifications Winfield added, "In a radio operator test completed 18 November, 1931, consisting of sending and receiving 20 words of code in one minute ten seconds I made marks of 97 and 94 respectively." Commanding Officer, Captain H.E. Lackey, U.S.S. CALIFORNIA, endorsed the request by writing, "Lieutenant Cunningham is a very capable and intelligent officer who takes keen interest in communication problems particularly in so far as they relate to Aviation. He is considered excellent material for the duty requested." The request was forwarded with an endorsement from Chief of Staff Joseph K. Tausig, United States Battle Fleet. Chief of Staff Tausig said, "Lieutenant Cunningham is an exceptionally able and efficient officer and is considered excellent material for a course in Communication."52 The waiting game would continue. Just like his efforts to take Aviation training, Winfield was even more determined to take the communication course.
Another request for the Communication Engineering course was submitted on October 11, 1932 to the Bureau of Navigation. Lieutenant Cunningham pointed out that "I have requested this course in 1927, 1928, and 1931." This time he gave the Bureau of Navigation another option, "As a second choice, it is requested that I be assigned to post-graduate instruction in the School of the Line." Current Commander of the CALIFORNIA, Captain Wilson Brown, added his endorsement by writing, "Lieutenant Cunningham is an officer of outstanding character, poise, and ability. I recommend him strongly for post graduate instruction." Captain Brown also forwarded proof of Cunningham's radio operating ability, which showed he could send and receive "18 code groups per minute." Captain John H. Towers, Winfield's old commander on the LANGLEY, now with Aircraft, Battle Force, U.S.S SARATOGA, submitted another glowing recommendation. Captain Towers would say, "Lieutenant Cunningham has performed his duties in a quiet, expeditious and efficient manner. I have formed a most favorable opinion of him, both personally and professionally. I again recommend and support his request and hope you will act positively on his request."53 Winfield's commander at Pearl Harbor, Commander V.D. Herbster, now with United States Fleet, Aircraft, Scouting Force, U.S.S. LEXINGTON in San Pedro, California would send his own endorsement on September 30, 1932 saying, "Lieutenant Cunningham was under my close observation for two years while stationed at the Naval Air Station, Pearl Harbor. He is the type of officer that does his best to give entire satisfaction in whatever duty he may be assigned. He is keen, studious, and industrious because he is enthusiastic about that branch of his profession."54
Lieutenant Cunningham received even more recommendations. Lieutenant Commander R.E. Kerr, who was the Gunnery Officer on the U.S.S. CALIFORNIA and served over Lieutenant Cunningham as department head stated his recommendation by saying, "I was impressed with his quiet energy in conducting his duties, and in his interest, conservatism and sound judgment in general naval administration. Technical education in the line of such an officer would be of great value to the service."55 The former Commander of the CALIFORNIA, and present Rear Admiral Henry E. Lackey with the Navy Board of Inspection and Survey, Pacific Coast Section, San Francisco, CA, said in his renewed recommendation dated October 7, 1932, "Lieutenant Cunningham impressed me as a serious hard working officer, who would not undertake lightly the work of the course he wishes to take. I do not hesitate to repeat my recommendation."56 Lieutenant Commander W.A. Heard, current head of the department in which Lieutenant Cunningham is now serving, wrote on October 12, "During the last five months he served as Senior Aviator under my observation and has demonstrated throughout that period unfailing attention to duty and consistent professional and administration ability."57
On June 29, 1933 Lieutenant Winfield Scott Cunningham would return to his old alma mater for his next duty station. He transferred to Annapolis, Maryland where he became Executive Officer of Training Squadron VN8D5 based on the old station ship, the REINA MERCEDES. He would continue serving with the Flying Department of the Navy and would teach at the Naval Academy post until July 1935.58
The Communication Engineering course was eluding him, but Winfield Scott Cunningham continued to gain mentors and friends of influence. On September 27, 1934 Senator Hiram W. Johnson, senior Senator from California and a member of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee, wrote the Secretary of the Navy the following, "My Dear Mr. Secretary: Some constituents have written me relative to Lieutenant Winfield Scott Cunningham, who is serving with the Flying Department of the Navy, and at present is teaching at the Naval Academy. Those interested in Lieutenant Cunningham express the hope that he may be retained in the service of the United States Navy. Very sincerely yours, Hiram W. Johnson."59 The concern is over the Navy's policy to retire officers who have failed to gain promotion to Lieutenant and Lieutenant Commander for three consecutive selection boards.
Secretary of the Navy Claude A. Swanson made the following reply on October 2, 1934, "My dear Senator: Receipt is acknowledged to your letter of September 27, 1934, concerning the prospective status of Lieutenant Winfield Scott Cunningham, U.S. Navy, who failed to be selected for promotion to the grade of Lieutenant Commander by the recent Selection Board. Under the provisions of an act of Congress approved May 29, 1934, promotions to the grades of Lieutenant and Lieutenant Commander in the Line of the Navy must be by selection only. The complete records of all officers eligible for selection are submitted to aboard of nine (9) officers who are under oath to perform the duties imposed upon them without partiality, having the view solely the fitness of officers and the efficiency of the naval service. Thus these boards are selecting not the officers who may have good records, but only those who are considered the very best fitted for promotion. Those not selected must be retired in order to make room for those who have maintained the very high standard necessary for advancement. Lieutenant Cunningham will, however, again be considered for selection by Boards to be appointed in the spring of 1935 and 1936. If not selected by the latter Board he must be retired in June 1936. Sincerely yours, Claude A. Swanson."60
How much of an influence Senator Johnson and other friends had will never be fully known, but on May 17, 1935, the Chief of Bureau of Aeronautics sent a recommendation to the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation that, "Lieutenant W.S. Cunningham be detached when directed by his Commanding Officer, on or after July 1, 1935 and ordered to proceed and report for duty involving flying with VF-2B on board of the U.S.S. LEXINGTON."61 The Bureau of Navigation approved the recommendation and Lieutenant Cunningham received the order on June 17, 1935 and he reported for duty July 15, 1935. Lieut. Winfield Scott Cunningham was assigned as Executive Officer of Fighting Squadron 2 which was an eighteen-plane unit, based on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. LEXINGTON. The LEXINGTON operated on the west coast with Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet, in flight training, tactical exercises, and battle problems. They flew the latest single-seater fighters, the Grumman F2F-1's.
Just before this transfer was confirmed, another mentor of Cunningham's sent the following recommendation from his office at the Office of Chief of Naval Operations, The White House, to the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation on May 27, 1935, "From: Naval Aide to the President. Subject: Lieutenant Winfield Scott Cunningham, U.S.N. - Fitness for promotion. 1. I have just learned that Lieutenant W.S. Cunningham was not selected last year for promotion to Lieutenant Commander. Lieutenant Cunningham served as senior aviator on board the CALIFORNIA while I had command of that ship and he impressed me strongly as being an outstanding officer of intelligence, force and poise. He not only handled the aviation unit with great ability but also was an excellent watch officer and exerted throughout the ship a strong influence for earnest and effective performance of duty. 2. I strongly recommend him for promotion. Wilson Brown."62 Two very quick responses were made to Captain Brown. The first was from William Leahy, Chief of the Bureau of Navigation dated May 28, 1935, "Reference: (a) Your letter to the Bureau of Navigation, 27 May 1935. 1. Reference (a) has been received and will be placed before the Selection Board. The second letter, dated the same day, came from the President, Line Selection Board, "Reference: (a) Captain Wilson Brown's letter of 27 May 1935, addressed to Chief of Bureau of Navigation. 1. Receipt of reference (a) is hereby acknowledged and will be presented to the Line Selection Board."
Commander G.A. Rood, Department of Marine Engineering, United States Naval Academy, also submitted a recommendation for promotion on Cunningham's behalf. Commander Rood wrote, "While I was attached to the Staff of the Commander Battle Force in the capacity of Flag Secretary I had occasion to observe Lieutenant Cunningham, attached to the CALIFORNIA, for a period of about ten months, extending through 1932 and 1933, when he was in charge of the ship's aviation unit and for a period of about two months in 1933 when he was performing the above duties and temporary additional duty as Aviation Officer on the Staff of Commander Battle Force. During the first period I was especially impressed by the efficiency and smartness of Lieutenant Cunningham's aviation unit and by the thorough and conscientious manner in which he performed his duties. During the second period of two months duration, he worked closely with me and I found him to be efficient, interested, and dependable in his staff work while, at the same time, maintaining the high standard of his ship's duty. I am pleased to recommend his promotion to Lieutenant Commander."63
Winfield Scott Cunningham's long years of dedicated service, enduring friendships and conscientious detail to work paid off. The Selection Board met in August 1935 and recommended the promotion of Lieutenant Cunningham to Lieutenant Commander. The Judge Advocate General's office recommended the approval of the findings on November 11, 1935 and the Bureau of Navigation Commissioned Lieutenant Commander Cunningham ad interim on November 26, 1935. His official regular commission was forwarded to his present station on the LEXINGTON on February 17, 1936 making the commission to Lieutenant Commander effective August 1, 1935.64
On August 13, 1936 Lieutenant Commander Cunningham received notice of a duty change. The orders stated, "You will proceed to Norfolk, Virginia, and report to the commanding officer of the Naval Air Station, Naval Operating Base, for duty involving flying in connection with the fitting out of VF Squadron 7B (U.S.S. YORKTOWN), and for duty involving flying in command of that squadron when commissioned."65 Cunningham reported for duty on November 2, 1936 and was given command of assembling and training a fighter squadron for the first U.S.S. YORKTOWN. Lieut. Commander Cunningham would complete the Correspondence Course in Strategy and Tactics given by the Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island on June 17, 1937. The President, Naval War College, C.P. Snyder, forwarded Cunningham's certificate and wrote, "I congratulate you upon the results of your work. The solutions submitted by you have indicated commendable application and interest in the Course. I hope that you will derive full benefit from these studies in your future career in the Service." VF Squadron 7B would receive a name change effective July 1, 1937 designating it Fighting Squadron Five with Cunningham as Commanding Officer.
The YORKTOWN was commissioned at the Naval Operating Base (NOB) in Norfolk, Virginia, on September 30, 1937. Captain Ernest D. McWhorter was in command. Lieut. Commander Cunningham was very proud when his squadron was chosen to represent the Navy at the National Air Races in Cleveland in 1937.66 The aircraft carrier trained in Hampton Roads, and in the southern drill grounds off the Virginia capes, into January of 1938. They were conducting carrier qualifications for her newly embarked air group. They set sail on January 8, 1938 for the Caribbean and arrived at Culebra, Puerto Rico, on January 10th. The carrier conducted her shakedown stopping at Charlotte Amalie, Saint Thomas, Virgin Islands; Gonaives, Haiti; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Cristobel, Panama, Canal Zone.67 On March 18, 1938 Cunningham's Squadron Five was awarded second prize money for gunnery merit in "excellence in Experimental Formation Battle Practice (Fighters) held on 18 March, 1938." 68
In the summer of 1938, Winfield, Louise and their daughter Valerie (now age seven), would once again go to Oakland, California where Lieutenant Commander Winfield Scott Cunningham became the commanding officer of the United States Naval Reserve Aviation Base.69 Cunningham had three reserve aviation squadrons in his command, two being Navy and one Marine Corps. Winfield's superior officer during this period was Rear Admiral Arthur J. Hepburn, commandant of the Twelfth Naval District, who during the latter part of 1938 was chairman of a board that recommended the development of Midway and Wake islands as Navy patrol-plane and submarine bases. Wake Island would soon be a prominent part of Winfield's life. During the successful joint Army, Navy, and Coast Guard Radio Drills of 12 and 17 October, 1939 Rear Admiral Hepburn would add the following to Cunningham's fitness report, "The Commandant is very much pleased with the efficient and systematic manner in which the Naval Reserve Aviation Base, Oakland, is handling its assigned tasks in subject exercises as indicated by the records of Radio San Francisco and your reports."70
The January 1940 Fleet Problem was a great success for Cunningham's command. The U.S. Fleet, commanded by Admiral J.O. Richardson, was the "enemy" in the problem, and was approaching the California coast for a mock invasion. The landing of troops was to be preceded by a simulated bombing of land bases by planes from the carrier LEXINGTON. Lieut. Commander Cunningham explained his involvement by saying, "Our base was part of the "defending" team, and our job was to search for the approaching fleet. It was a critical assignment, for the terms of the problem stated that defending Air Corps units must wait until they received word from us of the enemy's presence off the coast - or, if we failed, until they were sighted from land. At six o'clock one dark winter morning I led two planes out to sea to begin the search. At 6:45, some seventy-five miles west of the Golden Gate, we found the LEXINGTON busily engaged in launching planes. The discovery, radioed back to the base and relayed to Naval District Headquarters, gave the defenders an early start and was highly disconcerting to the "enemy". They hoped for a complete surprise, since a few days earlier, a "spy" had got a look at our search plans, which indicated we would not reach the area chosen by the LEXINGTON until at least two hours after we took off. But I had a surprise up my sleeve. At the last minute I changed the search plan and flew it in reverse."71
High praise was delivered to Lieutenant Commander Cunningham for the above-described successful exercise. Captain C.E. Reordan forwarded a copy of the following dispatch; "COMAIRSCOFOUR was much pleased with the excellent work by your aircraft operating under his command during the recent exercises. Well done."
Navy lifers always have a wish to return to the sea, and also to advance their careers. Cunningham was no exception. Lieut. Commander Cunningham would send on January 2, 1940 a request for a return to sea duty, to Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation. His request stated, "It is requested that I be ordered to sea duty in order that I may be afforded a more ample opportunity during the ensuing year to demonstrate my fitness for promotion. It is believed that duty as head of department or air group commander in a carrier is the type of duty desirable from the point of view of rounding out my record."72 The following orders were delivered to Cunningham on April 10, 1940, "1. When directed by the Commandant, Twelfth Naval District, on or about April 25, 1940, you will regard your-self detached from duty as commanding officer of the Naval Reserve Aviation Base, Oakland, California, and proceed to San Francisco, and take passage to Honolulu, T.H. Upon arrival proceed and report for duty involving flying and duty involving flying as navigating officer of U.S.S. WRIGHT."73 In May of 1940, he joined the U.S.S. WRIGHT based at Pearl Harbor, Commanding Officer, W.K. Harritt, and served as her Navigator and Executive Officer until November 1941. The WRIGHT was supporting the establishment of aviation bases on Midway, Canton, Johnston, Palmyra, and Wake Islands. She transported marines and aviation personnel, as well as construction workers and contractors, between those valuable bases.74 LCDR Winfield S. Cunningham was the first to initiate the Marine Flying Squadron aboard the U.S.S. WRIGHT in order to qualify for their carrier wings.
On March 4, 1941 Cunningham was notified that he was to report to the President of the Medical Examiners for physical examination preliminary to promotion to Commander. The medical board reported on March 25, 1941 that LCDR Cunningham was physically fit for promotion. Commander Winfield Scott Cunningham received his regular commission on July 1, 1941 and his appointment was made effective April 1, 1941.75 Commander K. McGinnis, Commanding Officer, U.S.S. WRIGHT would give Lieut. Commander Cunningham a 3.9 rating out of 4 during fitness reporting period March 26 - July 2, 1941. He would write, "This officer is an excellent officer. Has been well above average in his work as Navigator and in his collateral duties (Asst. Training Officer, SCM, DC, and Emergency Loan Officer). Makes an excellent impression on everyone who comes in contact with him. He is recommended for promotion. He should be given executive duties."76
In September 1941, WRIGHT was selected as the flagship of PatWing 1, Aircraft and Scouting Force. Commander C.W. Wieber, Commanding Officer, U.S.S. WRIGHT during Commander Cunningham's final fitness report on the WRIGHT for period July 3 - Sept 30, 1941 would also give Cunningham a 3.9 rating out of 4. He wrote, "Commander Cunningham is an excellent all around officer of the highest personal and military character. Exceptional well fitted for promotion. Commander Cunningham from long and varied experience in the aeronautical organization is eminently well qualified for any independent duty either ashore or afloat. As Navigating Officer he has performed his duties in an outstanding manner."77 Very high praise from a commanding officer, but the average sailor also had praise for Commander Cunningham.
I contacted several members of the U.S.S WRIGHT Association in November 2001. Then Seaman and Aviation Ordnance man Third Class, Pierce Mallory, had this to say about then LCDR Cunningham; "I recall a rather tall, lean man that carried his 180 lbs well - no fat on this man. I'm sorry that I didn't get the opportunity to see and speak to him after the war, for he was admired by all the crew who had any contact with him on the U.S.S. WRIGHT." Another shipmate Roy Nielsen, had this to say; "LCDR Cunningham was a fine officer and gentleman. He would buy us sailors a drink or two at Lau Yee Chai, which was a Chinese restaurant in Honolulu. Yes sir, a fine officer."
The easy years were over, but even then few of the military realized it. Cunningham summarized the general feelings shared by most of the naval officers by saying, "We had seen the war break out in Europe in 1939, as it had done in 1914, but we were not excited. Congress had passed the Neutrality Act; we wouldn't get involved this time. Surely the Germans wouldn't be so insane as to provoke the United States into war against them. And as for the Japanese, in spite of their saber rattling they must have known they hadn't the industrial base or the technical know-how required to justify hope for victory in a war against both the United States and Great Britain. They were an inferior people only capable of imitating the Western man and not very well at that. They were years behind in the ability to operate carriers and other men-of-war. And anyhow they could never turn out competent airplane pilots. They all had poor eyesight, didn't they?"78 The Navy's outlook was soon to change for good very quickly in December 1941.
After eighteen months on the U.S.S. WRIGHT Commander Cunningham was hoping for stateside duty to be with his wife and daughter. Instead, orders were received on October 8th to report to the Commandant, Fourteenth Naval District, for duty as Commanding Officer of the new Naval Air Station, Johnston Island. He was given ten days leave starting October 10th, but leave was canceled on October 14th. A Naval message was wired to the U.S.S WRIGHT, "Understand COMDR Winfield S. Cunningham ordered Command NAS Johnston Island. Account present emergency recommend cancellation Cunningham's leave and he be directed report COMFOURTEEN for temporary duty as OINC all naval activities Wake Island."79 Commander Cunningham thought to himself, "Well, at least Wake has trees. I felt it was a good omen since on my first cruise as the WRIGHT's navigator I had hit it right on the button. It is a low island, only twenty-one feet above the sea at its highest point, and finding it without radio aids to navigate by in a weary old ship was a feat of which any navigator could justly be proud."80 As the international situation worsened Winfield Scott Cunningham reported for duty on November 28, 1941 as Officer in Charge, All Naval Activities, Wake Island.
Winfield Scott Cunningham's entire peacetime service had prepared him for command at Wake almost as if it was planned. On tours of duty in destroyers, cruisers and battleships over a period of years Winfield had been battery officer, fire control officer, and senior aviator in charge of observation, all of which functions had made him thoroughly familiar with the very five-inch guns which would defend Wake's shoreline. As for the air defense, the planes in his own Fighting Five squadron had been predecessors of the very F4F-3 Wildcats that would serve with such heroic futility on Wake. Winfield had learned the jobs of a fighter squadron all the way from dive-bombing to the more mundane duties of administration. It was not by chance that the regulations stated only a naval aviator was qualified to assume command of bases such as Wake.
Before leaving for Wake Captain J.B. Earle, Chief of Staff for Admiral Claude Bloch, Commandant of the Fourteenth Naval District, briefed Commander Cunningham. It was emphasized that completion of the naval air station's construction was the top priory. Neither manpower nor equipment was to be diverted from the job to aid in work on the atoll's defense. There was not much concern for international events at the meeting. This made Winfield feel that he may not be going into the hornet's nest after all.81 Commander Cunningham said, "When I sailed for my new command, I had no hint from my superiors that they considered war imminent and no suggestion of how Wake might fit into the top-echelon strategy in the event war did come. As it turned out, I got direct instructions later, when the fighting began. A dispatch from Pearl ordered me to put into effect the provisions of a document known as WPL-46, containing plans in the event of war with Japan. The only hitch was that, on all Wake Island, there was no copy of WPL-46."82
As a fitting farewell to its navigator, it was the U.S.S. WRIGHT that delivered Commander Winfield Scott Cunningham and other Wake-bound personnel to their new assignments. The WRIGHT also released for temporary duty on Wake Commander Campbell Keene who was with the ships air department. He was to command a detachment that would help the flying boats in and out of Wake and control their activities. Commander Keene, by reason of his seniority, would become Commander Cunningham's second in command. On Cunningham's arrival to Wake on November 28th he replaced Major James Devereux who was acting island commander. Major Devereux would continue as commander of the Marine First Defense Battalion, but he now reported to Commander Cunningham. As officer in charge of all naval activities, Cunningham would be responsible for Wake's defense as well as its development.
After a few days of observation and coordinating defense and work assignments a CONFIDENTIAL progress and readiness report, typed by Cunningham's yeoman Glenn Tripp, was delivered to the Commandant 14th Naval District, which summarized the situation at Wake Island just five days before World War II would start for the United States.83 The reports heading and date is U.S. Naval Air Station, Wake Island, December 3, 1941 and it states:
From: Officer-in-Charge, Naval Activities, Wake Island.
To: Commandant 14th Naval District.
Subject: Progress and Readiness Report.
Reference: (a) Com 14 ltr. L9-3/NA38 (5984) of 1 August 1941.
The report required by reference (a), is hereby submitted:
(1) The officers now assigned and present at the Naval Air Station are the Officer-in-Charge and a supply officer, Ensign J.J. Davis, (SC) U.S.N. There are 28 enlisted men attached. The Marine Defense Battalion is composed of 13 officers and 383 enlisted men. Also at the Marine Camp are one officer and 48 enlisted men who arrived in the U.S.S. WRIGHT and who are attached to the Marine Fighter Squadron due Wake 4 December 1941.
(2) On temporary duty at Wake, in connection with operations of Patrol Wing TWO, there is now Commander C. Keene, U.S.N., in charge, one Ensign, D-V (G) USNR, two Ensigns C-V (S) USNR, and 30 enlisted men.
(3) Captain Wilson, Signal Corps, U.S.A., and five enlisted men of the Signal Corps, are now present on temporary duty in connection with communications incident to Army flights.
(4) The forgoing officer and enlisted personnel, permanent and temporary are considered adequate to handle the situation as at present set up with the following exception:
(A) The Defense Battalion should be brought up to full strength in order properly to prepare and man all required stations.
(B) Air station personnel should be brought up to strength as soon as possible in order to relieve the Defense Battalion of extra duty in connection with air station activities.
(C) The general situation in regard to assembly of outfit and stores has not been sized up fully as yet. At present there are inadequate storage facilities completed. This situation is expected to improve within a reasonable time.
(D) Facilities for caring for sick and injured personnel are inadequate. Any increase in the number of cases would be difficult to handle due to lack of space and equipment at the Marine Camp. It is to be noted that several cases have been landed from submarines. The contractors' hospital is constantly filled. Recommendations for increase in facilities at Marine Camp are being made in separate correspondence.
(E) A signal searchlight is urgently needed for signal purposes. The light at present in use is homemade and is inadequate to the demands of the station.
Commander, U.S. Navy
The report emphasized that the Defense Battalion should immediately be brought up to strength if the island and Naval Air Base was to be properly defended. This shortage of men was to have a direct effect on the survival of this key United States forward base. The lack of hospital facilities for "any increase in the number of cases" is a dark foreshadowing for what was soon to happen. The first few days at Wake Island for Commander Cunningham were the calm before a storm.
The storm came to Wake Island on the morning of December 8, 1941 (December 7th in Hawaii). Commander Cunningham was finishing his morning coffee when the radioman came running up with a message from Pearl Harbor, "Pearl Harbor under attack. This is not a drill". Cunningham immediately sent word to the defense battalion to go to battle stations and informed the air commander Major Paul Putnam to have four of the squadron's planes in the air at all times until further notice.84 The other eight planes would have to be dispersed as widely as possible on the ground, to protect them from surprise attack. With no radar on the island and the roar of the surf so loud enemy planes could approach at anytime with little warning. The planes would have to be the islands eyes and ears.
The Pan Am Clipper, which departed for Midway Island that morning, was recalled and was forced to dump its fuel on its return to Wake. ROTC Ensign James J. Davis, supply and accounting officer, knew something unusual had happened when he saw the Clipper return. Ensign Davis said, "I heard the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor when I was at our command headquarters in Camp Two. I went to a conference with Commander Cunningham and the skipper of the Pan Am Clipper. He agreed to fly a big circle around the island and see if he could see any ships or enemy planes. A pair of Wildcats would fly cover for him."85 Two of the fighters were just getting ready to provide the scouting escort when the twenty-seven Japanese bombers came out of a rainsquall from the south.
Dispersal of the planes became a major concern. Protective bunkers were under construction, but incomplete. The area around the airstrip was just too rough to safely place them without blocking the strip. There were no spare parts if any of the planes were damaged. The only acceptable location was the parking area. That left only fifty yards between each plane. Not very much space, but the airborne patrol should be able to give ample warning. This proved to be disastrous. The hopeful warning from the patrol was not to come, because they were at twelve thousand feet when the enemy's 27 twin-tailed bombers slipped under the low-lying clouds at about two thousand feet around noon. They came in from the south in three 8-plane V's, while Wake's Wildcats patrolled to the North. The War had come to Wake. The ten-minute raid produced destruction everywhere.
The enemy bombers in the lead group scored direct hits on four planes fueling for the relief patrol and three others were destroyed by fire. The 25,000-gallon aviation gas tank was hit and fifty-gallon fuel drums exploded like giant firecrackers. Of the fifty-five officers and men in the vicinity, twenty-three were either dead or dying. Eleven others were injured. The second and third V-formation struck the civilian Camp Two and the military Camp One where the Pan American installation was also based, incurred equal destruction. The civilian contractors were gathering for the noon meal. Dozens were killed. The defense battalion itself had suffered no casualties, but everyone was shaken by the destruction. They were down, but not beaten. Revenge would come a few days later.
At three o'clock on the morning of December 11th Commander Cunningham was roused by the telephone. Here is the conversation as retold by Commander Cunningham, "Captain, this is Gunner Hamas at the battalion command post. Major Devereux reports ships sighted on the horizon. He requests permission to illuminate with searchlights." Cunningham responded, "No. Don't use the searchlights. And don't commence firing until further orders."86 If they were indeed Japanese ships Cunningham knew he only had six old five-inch guns and would need the enemy to come in at close range. Winfield would wait hoping to lure the enemy closer. Captain E.B. Greey, Officer-in-Charge of Construction, confirmed the above conversation when he reported to the Marine Historical Section on February 26, 1948, "Commander Cunningham's post-war report is correct. For the first few days of hostilities, Commander Cunningham, Commander Keene and Lieutenant Commander Greey continued to occupy cottage "C". On the morning of 11 December 1941, about three hours before dawn, the field telephone connected with the J-line brought a call for Commander Cunningham. His portion of the conversation, which was overheard by the undersigned, was in substance to withhold all fire until the ships were close to the island. Upon the completion of the call, Commander Cunningham advised us those ships, that undoubtedly were hostile, and had been sighted by the lookout tower. He directed we alert certain personnel and immediately departed for the communications center, which at that date was located in the magazine used later for Island Command Post. Orders to Battery Commanders would have been given by Major Devereux."87
Wake lay, inactive but alert, as the tiny specks on the horizon grew larger. At five o'clock the advance ships were four miles off of Peacock Point. The enemy opened fire. The Wake guns remained silent. They did not want to show their hand yet. The enemy kept shelling and grew bolder. The telephone rang at Cunningham's command post. It was Hamas again. He said, "Captain. Lieutenant McAlister reports a destroyer, range four-six hundred, off Kuku Point. Lieutenant Barninger has ships in his sights off Peacock. Major Devereux ordered me to notify you." It was 6:15. Wake's silence was over. "What are we waiting for, John? Cut loose at them!"88 Gunner Hamas relayed the orders to the batteries around the atoll and the five-inch guns opened up.
Corporal Martin Greska, USMC, had an important job that morning of December 11th. He acted as the sight for the five-inch guns, Battery B, Toki Point, on Peale Island, under Lieutenant Kessler. Corporal Greska also confirmed the above orders given by Commander Cunningham. Corporal Greska said, "On the eleventh, the Japanese tried to invade us with a small fleet. Our officer (Kessler) was told to hold fire until Commander Cunningham gave the word. When we began to fire, we hit two of the ships. One blew up and sank while we watched (the Japanese destroyer Hayate that "blew up" was actually destroyed by the five-inch Battery L on Wilkes). Our guns and the Wildcat fighters sank another ship. After the cruiser (flagship Yubari) was fit by a five-incher, the Japs turned around and steamed out of range in what the Japanese called one of the worst defeats in Japanese naval history."89 Battery B was able to damage the destroyer Yayoi, and the destroyer Kisaragi was destroyed by Captain Elrod in his Wildcat.
Theodore A. Abraham, Jr. would write in his book, "Do You Understand, Huh? A POW's Lament, 1941 - 1945", a similar description of the trap that Cunningham set for the Japanese. Abraham worked as the medical secretary at the hospital under Dr. Lawton Shank. After the second Japanese bombing raid on December 9th destroyed the hospital they were ordered to move to an underground bunker to protect the wounded. Dr. Shank (the contractors' surgeon) and Lieutenant Gustave Mason Kahn (only surgeon attached to the Marine Detachment) had their hands full. Abraham overheard a conversation held between Dr. Kahn and Commander Cunningham made on the hospital's field phone soon after the raid attempt on December 11th. Dr. Kahn said, "Spiv, this is Gus. What in the hell is going on out there? Are the Japs about to invade us?" When Dr. Kahn hung-up he was visibly relieved as he retold his conversation to the staff present. The Japanese had attempted a landing. They had several transports, destroyers and light cruisers. Commander Cunningham had given orders not to fire on them until they were well within range. When we opened up on them, we inflicted considerable damage. Commander Cunningham ended by telling Dr. Kahn, "We beat them back, but you can be sure that they will be back."90
The Japanese tried to attempt a landing with 450 troops, but they were in for a surprise. They believed that their bombers had destroyed the islands defensive weapons. When the island did not respond to there own bombardment they grew bold and came in close. When the Wake defenders opened up they hit hard and devastating. Despite a heavy sea, the Japanese were beginning to put their troops into small boats when Wake opened up. The commander of the invasion fleet, Rear Admiral Sadamichi Kajioka, was on the light cruiser Yubari when one of the first salvos slammed into his ship. As Admiral Kajioka pulled his battered flagship out of range he left behind the destroyer Hayate that was sunk by Battery L on Wilkes. The destroyers Oite, Kisaragi, Yayoi, a naval transport, a patrol boat, and one of Admiral Marumo's light cruisers limped away. Captain Elrod of the Marine fighter squadron flew out and sunk the retreating Kisaragi, which had depth charges lining its deck.
After the war a Japanese authority would write, "It was one of the most humiliating defeats our Navy had ever suffered." It was the first victory of the war for our forces. The two destroyers that were sunk were the first enemy ships to be sunk by U.S. naval forces since the fighting had begun. In fact it was the only Japanese invasion force repelled at the beaches in the whole war. The fact that little Wake Island had turned back an invasion fleet would be an incalculable boost to the morale of a nation dazed by the destruction at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese were beaten, but they would return.
The Wake defenders were elated, but they were not out of the frying pan. Air raids continued and inflicted huge amounts of damage. A Navy PBY bomber arrived on Wake Island December 20th at 3:30 bringing secret orders relating to a relief force that was on its way to Wake. Commander Cunningham had a report typed up marked CONFIDENTIAL pertaining to the conditions at Wake and what the relief forces would find when they arrived on the 24th of December.91 It would fly out on the returning PBY. The Commander did not know it at the time, but it would be the final written report from Wake Island. The report read as follows:
From: Commanding Officer, NAS Wake.
To: Commandant, 14th Naval District.
Subject: Report on Conditions at Wake Island.
1. The first raid on Wake came just before noon, 8 December 1941. Wake had four fighters in the air, and the battery was in condition one. Remaining eight fighters were on ground spotted about one hundred yard apart. They were being serviced with ammunition and bombs. A force of about twenty-seven two-engine landplanes glided out of low clouds directly over landing field and released a heavy load of light and a few heavy bombs. An extremely heavy and accurate strafing attack was carried on at the same time. Four planes received direct bomb hits and three others were set on fire. The eighth was struck several times, but was later put into commission. Tents about the field were riddled. Two large gasoline tanks and a large number of filled drums were set on fire. Three officers and twenty-one men on the field were killed or received wounds from which they died. One fifteen hundred gallon gas truck was destroyed.
2. The formation continued over Camp Two, strafing this area. Immediately thereafter Pan Air was heavily bombed and machine-gunned. The hotel burned and nearly all facilities were burned or wrecked. A large number of gasoline drums were fired. Five Camorra employees of Pan Air killed.
3. The Pan Air clipper, Captain Hamilton commanding, had been unloaded preparatory to use as a patrol plane. At about 1250 he took off for Midway with all Pan Air white personnel, and all passengers excepting Mr. H.P. Havenor of the Bureau of the Budget, who remains and is well.
4. Immediate steps were taken to disperse personnel, distribute food and water supplies, and get aviation gasoline divided into small amounts. These measures have been continued to date, together with construction of open banked-up plane emplacements and two covered hangers in which work can be done at night, though they are by no means bombproof.
5. The second raid occurred at 1130 9 December 1941 was delivered by about twenty-five planes from about eight thousand feet. The attack was concentrated on camp two and the Naval Air Station. The contractors' hospital, a number of barracks buildings, aero logical building, construction material and spare parts storehouse, machine shop, garage and blacksmith shop, air station storehouse filled with stores and advance base equipment, were destroyed. The radio station was riddled and a large part of equipment destroyed. Many other buildings and a large percentage of equipment were damaged. Two bombers were shot down. Others believed damaged.
6. Two-hospital units and a communications center were established in three empty magazines. Due to several near hits in raid of 19 December, these are being removed to dugouts in a less dangerous location. Five more service deaths occurred in second raid, and a number of civilian deaths. Some of those killed were wounded in hospital.
7. Later raids added to damage to buildings and equipment. Raid of 14 December destroyed one airplane on ground and killed two men. Otherwise raids since 9 December have produced no casualties and relatively little damage to defenses. However, there have been many heavy bombs, which have fallen very close to objectives.
8. Our escape from serious damage may be attributed to the effectiveness of AA fire and the heroic actions of fighter pilots, who had never failed to push home attacks against heavy fire. The performance of these pilots is deserving of all praise. They have attacked air and surface targets alike with equal abandon. That none has been shot down is a miracle. Their planes (two now remain) are full of bullet holes. Two forced landings, fortunately without injury to pilots, have occurred with loss of planes.
9. The AA battery has been fighting with only about fifty percent of necessary fire control equipment. Four guns are useless against aircraft. One four -un unit is actually being controlled by data received from another unit several miles distant.
10. Only 1 and 1/4 unit's anti-aircraft (3 inch ammunition) remains.
Despite the present conditions Commander Cunningham sent out what would be his final letter home for the next few years. He wanted to ensure that his family knew that everything was fine even though the situation was far from good. The same PBY would carry a letter dated Wake, December 20, 1941 that said, "Dear Wife and Kid, We are having a jolly time here and everything is in good shape. I am well and propose to stay that way. Hope you are both in the pink and having a good holiday season. Trust you haven't worried about me, for you know I always land on my feet. You know what Jay McGlynn said. The situation is good and is getting better. Before long you won't hear of a Japanese east of Tokyo. The climate is good, the food isn't bad, and I only have to wash my face once a day. Baths even scarcer, though we work in a swim now and then. You know I am waiting only for the time of our joining. Circumstances may delay it a little longer, but it will surely come. All my love dears. SPIV."92 That time for joining took longer than both would every dream.
A new and dangerous surprise arrived on December 22nd in the form of twenty-nine bombers and eighteen carrier escort fighters arrived over the island. Aircraft carriers had to be in the vicinity. An urgent message was sent out to Pearl marked Urgent. The promised relief force must hurry their approach.
Admiral Kajioka was given another chance to save face. With naval reinforcements, support from two aircraft carriers, and two thousand troops he returned on the early morning of December 23, 1941. They were not taking a chance of another humiliating defeat. No moon was up to help the defenders see the approaching enemy as there was on the eleventh. Shortly after mid-night watchers reported barges and landing boats near the beach on the south shore of Wake and Wilkes. This time the enemy had crept in silent and unseen with no preliminary bombardment. The enemy ships commenced firing. At 2:50 a.m. a message was sent to the Pacific Commander in Chief: ISLAND UNDER GUNFIRE. APPARENTLY LANDING. At 3:19 a chilling reply came from Admiral Pye's headquarters. NO FRIENDLY VESSELS SHOULD BE IN YOUR IMMEDIATE VICINITY TODAY. KEEP ME INFORMED.93 The relief force was delayed and would be shortly recalled. Wake was now on their own.
After the war Commander Cunningham learned that the relief force was only 625 miles away before it was recalled. Cunningham believed if the relief forces were able to soiree forth, not only would Wake have been saved, but also a great naval victory could have been won. It was one of the darkest marks on the Navy's entire war record. When considering the full story by Admiral Joseph Reeves, former Fleet Commander in Chief, he considered the recall a disgrace. Reeves was quoted as saying, "By Gad! I used to say a man had to be both a fighter and know how to fight. Now all I want is a man who fights." 94 Historian and Retired Rear Admiral Samuel E. Morison wrote to Retired Rear Admiral Winfield Scott Cunningham 30 March 1960 and said, "It seems to me that the abortive expedition to relieve Wake Island, and not Pearl Harbor, marks the all-time low for the United States Navy."95
The invaders grounded two destroyer transports off the south shore of Wake and sent troops ashore from both. Two barges unloaded onto the beach at Wilkes. Two other landing craft put men ashore on Wake east of the channel entrance. As these landings began, the bulk of the active defense on Wake fell to mobile forces comprised of Marines, sailors and civilians, for a major portion of the defense battalion's strength was immobilized at the three and five-inch guns. The only clear factor that emerged as the battle began was the overwhelming numerical superiority of the invaders.
The battle raged back and forth for hours. Cut communication lines disrupted communication around the island early. Reports were few and sketchy. At five o'clock Cunningham sent a message to Admiral Pye: ENEMY ON ISLAND. ISSUE IN DOUBT.96 Japanese flags could be seen on Wilkes at daylight and it was assumed that it had fallen to the enemy. In fact it was a bright spot for the defenders. A force of one hundred troops was landed there and was wiped out by the defenders counter attacks. The carrier planes started swarming over the island at dawn. At 6:30 Major Devereux reported that his lines were being heavy pressed and he believed he could not hold out much longer. Cunningham informed Devereux that no friendly forces were in the vicinity. He asked Devereux if he believed it would be justified to surrender to prevent further loss of life. They had to think about the over thousand unarmed civilians. Devereux said, "It is solely up to the commanding officer." Cunningham took a deep breath and authorized Devereux to surrender if he felt he could no longer hold out.97
After the war, Major Devereux, would claim that the above conversation did not take place and he was "shocked" about the decision to surrender. He said the possibility of surrendering on December 23rd was "farthest from my mind", but later confirmed it was the right decision. The facts show a different story. The above discussion between Major Devereux and Commander Winfield Scott Cunningham was confirmed by a signed deposition by then second-in-command, Commander Campbell Keene. On December 20, 1946, Captain Campbell Keene reported to the Secretary of the Navy that, "About one hour after daylight on the morning of December 23, 1941, I picked up the telephone and found both Commander Cunningham and Major Devereux on the wire. Major Devereux was at this time reporting that he was being hard pressed at his Command Post by the Japanese, and that he did not believe he could hold out much longer. Commander Cunningham told him, if he did not feel he was able to continue fighting, to surrender (Italics added). A discussion ensued as to the advisability of surrendering or continuing the battle. During the discussion, Major Devereux said, "You know WILKES (ISLAND) has fallen." Commander Cunningham answered in the affirmative. Major Devereux then stated he did not feel he should make the decision to surrender, that decision should be made only by the Commanding Officer, Commander Cunningham himself. After a slight pause, Commander Cunningham informed Major Devereux that he was authorized surrender of the island and for him to make the necessary steps to affect it. Major Devereux answered that he was not certain of his ability to contact the Japanese Commander and asked Commander Cunningham also to attempt to make contact with the enemy. Commander Cunningham answered that he would see what he could do. I had heard reports of the fighting which had been going on during the night and knew the situation was serious, but no thought of surrender had entered my mind until I overheard the above conservation. It is obvious that there had been prior conversations between the two Commanders of which I had no knowledge."98
Cunningham hung up the phone and sent a final dispatch to the Commander in Chief, reporting two destroyers grounded on the beach and the enemy fleet moving in. All codes, ciphers and secret orders were destroyed and the communications transmitter antenna taken down. At this point the antenna was good only as a target for Japanese planes. No more messages were going to be sent out. Time was running out. At 7:30 Devereux called back asking whether Cunningham had been able to reach the Japanese by radio. Cunningham had not been able. Devereux repeated that he could not hold out much longer. Cunningham thought they had already resolved the issue and repeated his order that he was authorized to surrender. Devereux asked Cunningham to try and contact the enemy, because he was not sure of his ability to contact them. Cunningham responded, "I'll see what I could do." Before Cunningham could do anything, it was all over. Devereux had rigged a white flag and moved south towards the enemy.
Cunningham drove back to his damaged cottage; shaved, washed his face and put on a clean blue uniform. He drove down the road and surrendered. PFC Jack E. Davis who was with Battery G on Wilkes Island would describe, while fighting back tears, the following at The Defenders of Wake Island get-together on August 16, 2001 in Quantico, Virginia, "When I looked across the channel and saw Commander Cunningham coming down the road, surrounded by Japanese, wearing his dress blues, I knew it was over." Retired Master Sergeant Ewing Laporte wrote on September 10, 2001, "I was there, about 75 yards from Commander Cunningham when he drove up to attain the surrender. In his dress blues he made a formidable figure. It is shameful the enemy was spiteful, hateful and sadistic. To this day, I have no liking for anything Japanese." The Japanese paid a high price for Wake's surrender. The Japanese lost hundreds in their efforts to capture Wake Island, especially in the sinking of two of their battleships. Almost a hundred Japanese lost their lives on Wilkes alone. The American's gained a new battle cry, "Remember Wake".
Commanding Officer, Fourteenth Naval District, Admiral Claude C. Bloch, would write in his own hand the following on Commander Cunningham's November 28 - December 23, 1941 Fitness Report, "This officer was sent to Wake Island to Command on November 27, 1941. He performed his duties in an outstanding manner and in conducting the defense of Wake Island, lived up to the best traditions of the Navy. He is physically qualified for any duties ashore and afloat of Flag Rank."99 Cunningham's Commanding Officer, Admiral Bloch, would rate Commander Cunningham "within the top 10%" for reactions during emergencies, performance at battle station or in battle duties, assuming responsibility when specific instructions are lacking, exercising judgment, inspiring subordinates to work to the maximum of their capacity, maintaining discipline among those under his command, and military conduct. Admiral Bloch would conclude the fitness report by stating; "I have not seen or heard from this officer, since he left Pearl Harbor for Wake in November 1941. In making this report I have been largely governed by my belief, that the outstanding service of Commander Cunningham should be recognized."
The grueling years of imprisonment were about to begin. On January 12, 1942 it was announced that the prisoners would be leaving on the ocean liner Nitta Maru to begin their confinement in prisoner of war camps. Three hundred civilians were kept on the island as a labor force in clear violation of international agreements. Two hundred of these civilians were later transported to imprisonment, but 98 were found murdered on the island after the war. The 98 civilians had been lined up and shot in 1943 when the Japanese feared an American invasion was imminent.
The captives were ordered to pass through two lines of the ship's crewman. Cunningham described the scene this way, "I had barely picked up one of my bundles when a Jap struck at my hands and tore it from them. It was like a signal. The double line erupted in hate, and as we ran the gauntlet we were dealt kicks, blows and slaps by men who had no part in our capture. Near the bottom of the last ladder we were all sprayed with a disinfectant, but in my case it was hardly effective, since I was wearing a topcoat."100 Winfield and twenty-nine other officers were herded into the ship's mailroom. They were lucky. It was near the engine room, so it remained warm. The enlisted men and civilians were confined in the cold cargo spaces in the hold. In the months ahead they were to find out that keeping prisoners half-starved was a studied policy. The Nitta Maru's crew were masters at it. Winfield said, "In all our long record of semi-starvation as prisoners of war, the twelve days we spent in the voyage from Wake were, at least in my estimation the worst."101
If you did not follow directions fast enough a resounding slap on the face would follow. Winfield said, "Since none of us knew any Japanese we had difficulty understanding what was expected of us. There was a great deal of slapping. Captain Platt was taken out into the passageway one day and beaten with a club for excessive talking. There was a lack of officer supervision, and the guards took it upon themselves to beat the prisoners."102 The guard commander, Toshio Saito, was especially cruel. He relieved Commander Cunningham of his Naval Academy ring "in the name of the Emperor". The Emperor never received the ring. Cunningham's yeoman, Glenn Tripp, had his high school ring taken by the same guard commander. After the war both rings were found in the residence of the former commander of the guard. They were looking for Saito to try him for war crimes when Winfield's ring was discovered. Saito, on the other hand, was never found. (Authors Note: Admiral Winfield Scott Cunningham's 1920 Naval Academy ring is in the possession of the author.)
During the long trip Toshio Saito showed just how cruel he could be. He gathered 150 spectators together on the ships deck around five bounded and blindfolded American Wake Island prisoners and announced, "You have killed many Japanese soldiers in battle. For what you have done you are now going to be killed for revenge. You are here as representatives of your American soldiers and will be killed. You can now pray to be happy in the next world."103 Each one in turn was then beheaded, bayoneted and mutilated before they were thrown overboard. Now you understand why they were looking for him after the war. Such brutality was a trademark of many Japanese soldiers.
During a two-day layover in Yokohama, Japan propaganda pictures were taken and some, including Commander Cunningham, made sound recordings that were used for radio broadcasts back to the United States. An NBC reporter, after hearing the broadcast recordings, said that the speakers sounded sad and dispirited. The January 19, 1941 broadcast from Commander Cunningham said, "This is Commander Winfield Scott Cunningham, United States Navy, age 42. At Wake Island I was in command of all the naval and Marine Corp forces. My home address is Annapolis, MD. Since the capture of Wake the prisoners, including myself, have been fairly treated and all in good health, looking forward to getting back to our homes. To my wife in Annapolis, MD., I wish to send my best greetings and hope for her welfare and that of our child, and I also wish to assure her that I am in perfect health and expect to be so for a long time." This forced statement about being "fairly treated" at least let the family and friends know that he was safe for now.
On January 21, 1942, Mrs. Cunningham would receive her first official written notice that her husband was still alive and a prisoner of war. The letter was from Captain L. E. Denfeld, Assistant Chief, Bureau of Navigation, and it stated, "From the latest report which has been received, it appears (italics added) your husband, Commander Winfield Scott Cunningham, USN, was at the Naval Air Station, Wake Island, at the time of the capture by the Japanese military forces. As his name does not appear on any casualty list thus far received, it is probable that he is now a prisoner of war."104 It took the January 19th broadcast by the Japanese reporting the capture of Commander Cunningham for the Navy to confirm his apprehension at Wake Island.
Long days of worry and dread were taking place at the home front inflicting punishment of a different kind for the family and friends of the prisoners. When Wake Island was captured, Mrs. Cunningham at first could not receive any word concerning her husband. The Navy reported to her that they could not confirm if Commander Cunningham was on Wake Island at all. The Japanese played the tape recording of "the captured Commander of Wake Island, Commander Cunningham" on January 19, 1942. The Navy Department again said, "We can not confirm that anyone by that name had been on Wake." It was not until April 29, 1942 that the Navy could finally "confirm" Commander Cunningham was a prisoner of war and was at Wake Island. Captain L.E. Denfeld wrote to Mrs. Cunningham again and said, "Information has just been received from official Japanese sources, via Geneva, to the effect that your husband, Commander Winfield Scott Cunningham, USN, is a prisoner of war in the Shanghai vicinity, but the exact locality of internment is not known at this time. This confirms (italics added) our previous letter to you dated January 21, 1942, indicating that he was probably a prisoner of war, as he was at the Naval Air Station, Wake Island, at the time of the capture by the Japanese military forces on December 23, 1941." It is no wonder Commander Cunningham did not receive any credit for the defense of Wake Island. The Navy could not even give his wife definite answers about his whereabouts, let alone the nation. They left it to the Marine Corp' Publicity Department to take full dominance of publicity for the defense at Wake and left little room for the Navy and Army personnel to receive deserved and equal credit.
The Navy permitted Wake to become distinctively a Marine saga and Major James P.S. Devereux was identified as the island commander. After the war Commander Cunningham would state, "During my years of imprisonment I was concerned how the public felt about my leadership of Wake Island, but after the war I discovered that most of my countrymen did not know I even existed. To others I was a shadowy figure whose very presence on Wake had not been confirmed until the enemy identified me, and whose apparent function had been that of a well-meaning figurehead who left the conduct of the battle to his subordinates. Wake Island had developed into a massive legend of Marine Corps heroism, and there was no room for a Navy officer in that legend, even if he had happened to be in command of the Marine heroes."105
After the Yokohama, Japan layover the Nitta Maru continued on its journey and arrived on January 23, 1942 at the final destination of Shanghai, China. They still had a few miles march to their first prisoner of war camp, but brutality was the first thing that greeted them when they disembarked the Nitta Maru. Commander Cunningham said, "One of the guards, a buck-toothed petty officer wearing glasses, ran up and down the line of prisoners, dealing out blows and kicks for no apparent reason other than to satisfy some sadistic cravings."106 The camp was located outside Woosung, China and was a few miles down river from Shanghai. They were marched the five miles to the camp in the freezing cold. When they arrived at the camp the enlisted men and civilians were packed thirty-six people to a barracks and officers were quartered two or three to the smaller rooms. All were unheated and extremely uncomfortable. Colonel Yuse commanded the prisoner's new home. Commander Cunningham was senior officer present until January 31, 1942 when the marine guards from Peking and Tientsin arrived under the command of Colonel W.W. Ashhurst.
The responsibility for Wake's surrender bore down on Commander Cunningham unrelentingly. Cunningham kept thinking, "I thought of the brave men who had died under my command, and the others who were now mistreated prisoners because I had made the decision to surrender. Over and over I reviewed that decision and others I had made, and I wondered whether different ones might have saved us."107 His thoughts began turning to escape. Winfield believed it the duty of every prisoner to try to escape, but Cunningham had an extra reason to escape. He wanted to get back to the war and fight again and avenge the humiliation of Wake's defeat.
Cunningham's cellmate was Lieutenant Commander C.D. Smith of the Naval Reserves who was called to active duty a few weeks before Pearl Harbor to take over all U.S. Navy interests in Shanghai when Rear Admiral William Glassford sailed for the Philippians. He also commanded the gunboat U.S.S. WAKE that was in Shanghai harbor waiting for demolition if the Japanese attacked. Commander Smith hatched a plan of escape and Cunningham jumped at the chance. Commander John Woolley of the Royal Navy Reserve, Superintendent of the Wake Island contractors Dan Teters, and a Chinese boy named Loo who was from the area and ship boy on the U.S.S. WAKE rounded out the plotters.
On the night of March 11, 1942 they made good on their escape. They avoided the guards and carefully dug under the electrified fence. They reached the banks of the Yangtze and Smith convinced everyone to move downstream in search of a sampan and ride the tide to Pootung and the friendly Chungking Chinese. The Chinese boy tried to convince the group to go west. Later, after they were captured, Cunningham thought to himself, "Strangely enough, we paid no attention to Loo. Convinced that Smith knew what he was doing, we ignored the advice of a man native to the area and took the word of the Occidental who said he knew better."108 They followed the river to a point near the confluence of the Yangtze and Whangpoo River's. After hours of searching for a sampan without luck they decided to try and contact a local Chinese farmer for help. They took shelter in a farmer's barn near the city of Powashan. They thought they found someone sympathetic, but the local betrayed them to the Wang Ching-wei Chinese government troops. They tried to bargain with them with rewards, but their dreams of freedom were soon dashed when they saw Japanese troops appear and surrounded them.
They were taken to the city jail in Woosung and interrogated by the feared Kempeitai who were the army elite. Surprisingly, no brutalities occurred. Winfield said, "Our interrogators actually seemed to be in good spirits about something."109 They learned later the reason they were so happy. It was the simple fact that the Kempeitai looked with disdain on other army elements, represented in this case by the miserable Colonel Yuse. Winfield learned, "The fact that we had escaped from him and then recaptured by them filled them with such glee that they were almost grateful to us for the chance to humiliate him." They rubbed it in Colonel Yuse's nose one more time when they were brought back to the camp to show how easy it was to escape.
Flying Sergeant Robert O. Arthur, remembered that day years later, as a retired Major, by saying, "On March 11, 1942, Commander Cunningham and three others escaped from Woosung prison, near Shanghai. At once the Japanese insisted that we all sign a paper saying we wouldn't try to escape or we would be killed. The Wake Island personnel refused to sign, even though we knew we would not be held to this. So we were labeled "dangerous prisons" and shipped to a prison camp at Kawasaki, a town between Tokyo and Yokohama. That would be my home for almost four years. We were quartered in a flophouse with bedbugs and lice, eight men to a room with one small window for air. It turned out that after ten to twelve hours of work on the railroad, we were so tired we just didn't care."110
Commander Cunningham and his fellow escapee's luck were running out. They were all taken to Shanghai on March 13, 1942 to be confined in the infamous Bridge House, headquarters of the Kempeitai and scene of its most terrible torture sessions, to await trial for their crimes.
Smith, Wooley, Teters, Loo and Cunningham were all placed in different cells that contained about twenty prisoners. They were required to keep seated at all times except for a few exercise periods, when they walked Indian-file around the cell. No talking was permitted. Winfield said, "It was hard to keep still, for the cells were full of lice and the odor of filth and decay was always present. Sitting for 18 hours a day was hard on the legs and back. Plumbing facilities consisted of a wooden bucket in the corner of the cell. Most of the prisoners were Nationalist Chinese soldiers and they were receiving exceedingly brutal treatment. They were given no baths, no medical treatment for injuries or disease, and were constantly being beaten. On two occasions during the first ten days I was there I woke up to find one of the prisoners dead."111 The food provided to foreign prisoners comprised of approximately a pound of bread with about two ounces of sugar daily.
They stayed 33 days at the Bridge House before being transferred to the Kiang-wan Military Prison on the outskirts of Shanghai on April 15, 1942. After being stripped for a physical examination by Japanese non-commissioned officers, they were brought before a Japanese army court -martial. They were now considered part of the Japanese army, because they were now captives of the army. The trial lasted several hours. The escapee's were not given a public defender. The court officers were attempting to find the ringleader, but the escapees stood by their story that all were equally leaders except in the case of Loo. The court decided that they would all be punished as ringleaders and deserters from the Japanese Army. They were forced to wait seven weeks in solitary confinement in rooms that were 41/2 by 9 until they would receive their sentences. The cells had concrete walls and wooden floors. No furniture was provided and the one window was 9 feet above the floor. Being alone averaged out to be around twenty-three hours and forty-five minutes a day. Winfield said, "A single day of solitary confinement can be torture in a cell that had a small window that was too high to look out of. Seven weeks can feel like a lifetime."112
They were brought before yet another court of officers on June 2, 1942 and tried again. Apparently, the Japanese were not happy with the first trail. The defendant's tried to bring attention to the various international conventions concerning prisoners of war, which prescribed 30 days solitary confinement as the maximum penalty for escape attempts, but the Japanese contended that they were not signatories of the Geneva Convention and were not bound by its provisions. They were tried under provisions of the Japanese military law as deserters from the Japanese Army. The military members of the escape party, Woolley, Smith and Winfield would receive ten year's imprisonment. Dan Teter's was given two years and Loo one. Winfield was actually relieved, "It didn't sound good, but it was a lot better than being shot. We almost beamed at the senior officer."113
Seven days later they were moved to the Shanghai Municipal Gaol, also referred to as Ward Road Gaol, to serve their sentences. Commander Cunningham was able to send out one notice to his family, which in part released his affairs to his wife just in case something bad would happen. The post card was dated 9 June 1942 and the heading read, "Shanghai Municipal Gaol. Ward Road. Foreign Section."114 It said, "My dear wife and daughter, I hereby give my wife, Louise Cunningham, full authority in all financial matters affecting me. I am very well, my darlings, and feel that some day everything will be all right again. Your daddy, W.S. CUNNINGHAM." Written on the bottom left corner on the post card read, "From: Winfield Scott Cunningham, Commander, U.S. Navy." This last part showed how Commander Cunningham saw himself, but the Japanese saw and treated him so much different.
Commander Cunningham was required to wear the uniform prescribed for criminal prisoners. The governor of the Gaol was a Japanese named Tsugai, a former municipal police official. They were no longer treated as prisoners of war, but as troublemakers who lost their combatant status and were serving out criminal terms. They settled into the routine of long monotonous days (18 to 20 hours per day spent in a cell) indistinguishable from one another, but the conditions were generally better than they had experienced up to this point. For the first time since the fall of Wake, they were given the opportunity to write home once a month. As punishment for escaping they were not allowed the use of tobacco products, or receive packages from home or the Red Cross, but they could receive short return notes from their families.
On July 9, 1942, four enlisted marines, Corporal Connie G. Battles, Corporal Charles W. Brimmer and Corporal Jerold B. Story, and Pfc. Charles A. Stewart, who escaped from the prison camp on March 31, and who was recaptured on April 17 arrived at the Gaol. In Corporal Story's signed deposition before the War Crimes Office, he wrote, "We had no counsel during our trail for escaping from Woosung. When the trial was over we were informed that Battles, Steward and I were sentenced to four years in prison and that Brimmer was sentenced to seven years. Brimmer had admitted that he was the ringleader of the escape. Actually this was not the case, but Brimmer admitted to the fact to stop the beatings. When they told Brimmer that he got seven years, we all started to laugh and told him he would be an old man before he left the prison. As we started to walk out of the courthouse the Japs called us back and raised Brimmer's sentence to nine years, evidently because we had laughed."115 In July of 1943, American civilian Pat Herndon, who received a two-year sentence for fighting with other prisoners, joined the group at the Gaol.
Spare time was spent reading. A copy of Dale Carnegie's book How to Win Friends and Influence People made the rounds. Winfield said, "The good Mr. Carnegie's advice on the achievement of popularity was being absorbed by an audience the author had never dreamed of acquiring, and the progress of the book from prisoner to prisoner was accompanied by a marked upswing in the polite virtues. Eventually the book's happy influence wore off and all hands became their old combative selves again."116 As before, thoughts soon turned again to escape. No one had ever escaped from the Shanghai Gaol, but Winfield was determined to be the first.
While Winfield languished in prison and was beginning to become quite sick, his wife received the following letter from Rear Admiral Randall Jacob, Chief of Naval Personnel, dated June 21, 1943, "My Dear Mrs. Cunningham, I take pleasure in forwarding to you the citation of the Navy Cross awarded your husband, Commander Winfield S. Cunningham, U.S. Navy, reported as a prisoner of war, in recognition of distinguished and heroic conduct in the line of his profession against enemy Japanese forces in the defense of Wake Island, December 7, 1941, to December 22, 1941."117 The citation was also forwarded from Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, and "For the President".118 Mrs. Louise Cunningham's response to them both stated, "It gives my daughter and myself, as well as all the members of our families, great pleasure to have this honor bestowed upon Commander Cunningham. If he could know this, it would bring him the greatest pleasure he has ever experienced. My only regret is that he is not here to receive this award personally."119
From March 3, 1942 to October 4, 1942 some of the prisoners were aloud to purchase on credit additional supplies through the American Association of Shanghai, 51 Canton Road, Shanghai, China and were paid for by the Swiss Consulate-General office. A letter from Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Company, Limited, Shanghai was delivered C/O Shanghai Municipal Gaol, To Commander Cunningham that stated, "Dear Sir, Under instructions from our Supervisors we regret no further goods can be supplied on credit from this company." It seems that the Japanese decided that no more privileges were to be given to any prisoner. The total bills paid by the Swiss Consulate were $1,275.40 for W.S. Cunningham, $2,945.56 for C.D. Smith and $2,072.63 for N.D. Teters. It is interesting to note the high prices charged to the American Prisoners: 1 Pipe $100.00, 1 lb. Tobacco $150.00, 1 Warm Slippers $250.00, 1 Marking Pencil $8.95, 4 Pair Woolen Ankle Socks $100.00, 3 Palmolive Soap $5.50 (each) and 1 Hair Brush $35.00.120 It would not be until March 1944 that the prisoners were aloud to start purchasing food through the Swiss Council.
In July 1943 Cunningham acquired a severe case of diarrhea and by February 1944, Winfield's physical condition had deteriorated badly. Escape plans were put on hold. He weighed only 129 pounds, as opposed to his normal weight of 185. Cunningham hid his true condition from his wife by trying to bring her some cheer in prison postcards that he was aloud to mail home. He wrote on October 6, 1943, "Dear Gals and Pals, Autumn has arrived in Shanghai with a bang, or as they told Napoleon about winter in Russia, like a bombshell. It is plenty cool, just right for football and such like sports; and I hope that the hunting will be good this season. It looks as though it might. Our garden is not in such good shape this season; it doesn't look as though the Chrysanthemums will do well. We can't have everything. Well, we hope this may be the last winter we shall have to endure under such conditions. I think that one's health is apt to be less and less equal to the task of coping with the bad food and living conditions as time goes on. Out of the dungeons by Xmas '44, we hope. With Love, Daddy (signed on the side W.S. Cunningham, Commander U.S.N.)."121 The Chinese doctors diagnosed Winfield as having nervous indigestion and he was sent to the Police Hospital on February 23, 1944 for three weeks. He returned to the Ward Road Gaol on March 15 when his diarrhea stopped and a new rule, which allowed them to purchase food through the Swiss Consul, brought his weight back up to 167 by September 1944. Two more arrivals came in May 1944 when Marine Sgt. Coulson and PhM2c Brewer, arrived to serve two-year sentences for attempting to escape from the prison camp.
As Winfield's strength returned, so did his efforts to escape. A second attempt was made to escape on October 6, 1944. Two Danish citizens, Borge Theodore Johan Petersen and a Mr. Olafsen, were released from the Shanghai Municipal Gaol in September and told Commander Cunningham that he would throw several hacksaws onto the prison grounds at a pre-arranged time. The hacksaws were delivered as promised, but a competing escape group (Smith, Woolley, and Story) must had made a new deal with Petersen before he left the prison, and they obtained the saws first. Cunningham's group (Cunningham, Coulson, Brewer, Brimmer and Stewart) could hear the hacking away of the prison bars and could not stand the thought of being left behind. Commander Cunningham decided to confront Commander Smith. Cunningham pointed out that he was senior officer and leaving a fellow countryman behind would not look well when he reported the situation to the Navy Department. Commander Smith and Woolley decided, after heated discussion between them, to ask Cunningham to be the fourth escape member of their group. Cunningham insisted it would be all eight Americans. They were furious at first, but Cunningham offered an alternate plan. They would let Smith's group leave first, giving them an hours head start. They reluctantly agreed.
The American prisons were able to cut the bars of their cell windows. Eight of the nine military prisoner-of-war confines made the attempt with Cunningham. The other escapee's were Commander Woolley, Lieut. Commander Smith, Marine Corporal J.C. Story, Corporal C.W. Brimmer, Marine Sergeant R.F. Coulson, Marine Private C.A. Stewart, and PhM2c A.T. Brewer. Only Corporal Battles remained behind, because he was suffering from epilepsy. They split up into two groups and tried to make it to the friendly Nationalist Chinese in the countryside. Only one of the groups (Woolley, Smith and Storey) was successful. Cunningham's group made it as far as the Soochow Creek, before local police cornered them in a cul-de-sac, and they became prisoners again. His freedom was short lived, but he believed it was worth the try.
The Japanese Military Police also picked Petersen and Olafsen up later that day. They were tried on December 11, 1944 for helping the escapees and sentenced to two years at the Ward Road Jail. After the war, Petersen wrote a letter to Commander Cunningham on December 29, 1945 asking for assistance in becoming an American citizen. He said, "We were taken to the Ward Road Jail and given two blankets, no hot water, and one half to one pound of bread a day. We were given no exercise, and were unable to wash for five months. When the Japanese left the Chinese took over. I was finally released on August 16, 1945. As you know, Commander Smith came back to Shanghai, but both Olafsen and I have no use for him. He talked to much, and it was his fault that we were caught that night."122 Cunningham believed Petersen betrayed him, but he did write a letter confirming his help in the escape attempt and asked the authorities to help in his bid to come to America.
Cunningham wondered what would happen to someone who escaped twice. Would the Japanese anger lead to the death penalty?
Cunningham was confined again in the Bridge House for the investigation until November 3, 1944. The diet was solely rice, salt, and tea. The cell was crawling with lice and he was confined only with Chinese prisoners with the same rules and treatment as before. On November 3 he was transferred back to the Kiang-wan Military Prison in the care of the Kempeitai. Winfield went back into solitary confinement for eleven weeks of cold, hunger and sickness. Nervous indigestion overtook Commander Cunningham again and it persisted until March 1945. He wasted down to 115 pounds and commenced experiencing systems of beriberi. Cunningham said, "The only thing that gave me cheer during the frightful winter of 1944-45 were the bombings of the prison area. Eight days after I arrived at the prison the bombs started falling. Some were close enough to shake the building." 123
Six weeks later, on December 11, 1944, they all went before a general court-martial. This was Cunningham's third trial. As usual there was no defense for the Americans and Cunningham was given life imprisonment. Cunningham said, "I was relieved that it wasn't death. This was the third time that I faced hard looking Japanese Army officers. I am prepared to claim the honor among United States Navy officers of having been court-martialed the most times by the Japanese."124 Cunningham was surprised that Corporal Brimmer also received a life sentence, since Cunningham was considered the ringleader. He later found out that Brimmer was tortured into a confession of his earlier escape, so he was considered a ringleader in this attempt also. Stewart, Brewer and Coulson received eight-year sentences.
Japanese officers studiously ignored all prisoners. There appeared to be a calculated policy of exhibiting contempt for prisoners-of-war. Japanese referred this as part of "Bushido", which is translated as "the way of the warrior". The treatment of the prisoners throughout their confinement showed that the detentioners regarded the imprisonment as a merited punishment, rather than a detention do to the misfortunes of war. Commander Cunningham said, "On several occasions during my imprisonment the Japanese informed me that my imprisonment was a personal disgrace, and failing to achieve death in battle, I should have killed myself."
Thirty-nine days after the trial, on January 19, 1945, they were taken to the rail station and rode two hundred miles to Nanking. They were delivered to the Nanking Military Prison. By now Cunningham became so weak. Winfield said, "I weighed about 115 pounds and suffered unceasingly from my stomach. The weather was desperately cold, I had heard no good news from the fighting fronts, and the loneliness was overwhelming. I was starting to lose the will to live."125 The Japanese did not expect Commander Cunningham to live through the winter. Cunningham did survive the harsh winter and was finally taken out of solitary. He was put in the cell of former Ward Road prison mates Pat Herndon and Marine Corporal Battles. He soon served as the mediator between the two cellmates who were not on speaking terms. Cunningham also learned that four of the Doolittle flyers were in the prison. For the offense of being present in a cell when a window was broken by another prison, on June 25, 1945, Commander Cunningham was fitted with a heavy leather belt and his hands were shackled to the belt with handcuffs. This punishment continued for 15 days.
By the spring of 1945, Cunningham started to recover from his illnesses and was cheered by the heavy bombing in Nanking. They all yelled when a P-51 sprayed the prison yard with machine gun bullets. On August 1, 1945 all the prisoners in Nanking and were all moved by train to Peiping, China (present day Peking). Commander Cunningham was handcuffed to another prisoner for the 46-hour trip and his arms were lashed together by a rope secured above his elbows and across his back. He stayed in a closely confined cell in the military prison at Peiping, China from August 3 to August 18, 1945. The five minutes daily that was given for washing was the only interruption during this confinement.
On August 13 Cunningham saw a lot of ashes floating in the air made by burning paper. Ordinarily paper was never burned in China, for it was too valuable. Cunningham said, "We deduced that the Japanese were burning records, and our spirits soared."126 Around noon on the same day the prisoners were forced to stand at attention in their cells. After the war Cunningham concluded, "It must have been at the same time the Emperor's broadcast accepting the surrender terms was put on the air." On the night of August 18th, the 1330th night of Winfield's confinement and his twenty-ninth anniversary of his entry into the Navy, the American's at the camp were brought before the prison commander. His speech was brief; "The war is over. We hope the Americans and the Japanese will shake hands and become friends again."127
They were moved that night to a civilian internee camp known as Feng-tai west of Peking. It was here that Cunningham finally realized he was free. Winfield said," Before I turned in for the night, I took a stroll around the camp. It was something I had not been able to do for three years and eight months. I reveled in the sight of the stars, not just a few as seen through a barred window, but all of them. For the first time I could walk as long as I liked and stayed up as late as I chose. Glorying in this apparently trifling privilege, I found myself realizing at last that I was free."128 Unknown to Commander Cunningham at the time, a notice was being sent to his home announcing his temporary promotion to Captain, back dating the effective date to the 10th day of June 1943.129
If you would like to see an immortalized image of Winfield Scott Cunningham looking out the bars of his small prison window go to the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida. A full-length painting by K. Doyle Ford is on display next to the "Remember Wake Island" display.
An Army Emergency Liaison Team contacted Commander Cunningham on August 23, 1945 at the Feng-tai prison camp. He had lost over seventy pounds and he still suffered from beriberi. Cunningham did not notice the Doolittle Flyer's in the camp and informed the Army Team. The Japanese were surprised that anyone knew about the Doolittle members. They were forced to produce the flyers at once.
Vice Admiral Randall Jacobs, Chief of Naval Personnel, would send the following cable to Mrs. Louise Cunningham on August 23, 1945, "Unable to contact you by phone. I am please to inform you that a U.S. Army Emergency Liaison Team from China in Peking area has contacted your husband, Commander Winfield Scott Cunningham, who is a prisoner of war of the Japanese. You will be promptly informed when additional information is received."130
Captain Winfield Scott Cunningham was evacuated on an Army B-24 to Siam in Free China, on August 24, 1945. On August 25th they flew to Chunking, where the Doolittle Flyer prisoners left to leave on a different route, and the rest went to Cumming, on the Burma Road, and remained there for eight days. On September 2 Captain Cunningham left Kunming for Calcutta, India, then to Agra, Karachi, Abidjan, Cairo, Tripoli, Casablanca, the Azores, and Newfoundland. They arrived in New York City on the 7th of September and then arrived in Washington, D.C. later in the day. This was the same day Wake Island was formerly surrendered by the Japanese. He would arrive safe and sound back at his home in Annapolis, Maryland on Saturday, September 8, 1945. His orders from the Bureau of Naval Personnel were received on September 10th stating, "The unexecuted portion of your orders of 31 October 1941, is hereby cancelled. Report to the Medical Officer in Command of the National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland, for a complete physical to determine your fitness for all duties."131
After his physical checkup at the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland on September 10, 1945, Captain Cunningham reported to temporary duty in the Bureau of Naval Personnel, Navy Department, Washington, D.C., in November 1945. On December 5, 1945 Captain Cunningham received a change in the date of his rank. Instead of June 20, 1943, his rank to Captain was now dated effective June 20, 1942. December 14, 1945 brought orders sending Cunningham to the U.S. Naval Air Training Base, Pensacola, Florida to receive refresher aviation instruction. From January 22 - May 1, 1946 Captain Cunningham continued with refresher instruction on the latest Naval Air innovations. Cunningham missed a lot in those 3 and half years of Japanese confinement. Commanding Officer L.T. Hundt, Naval Air Training Base, reported in Captain Cunningham's fitness report dated May 4, 1946, "Captain Cunningham is an excellent pilot, and is considered qualified and is recommended for promotion when due." Cunningham completed 10 hours flight time in N2S, 50 in SNJ, 15 in SNB, and 15 in VPB aircraft. He was rated an HTA Pilot under his rating of technical competence in specialty.
On May 3, 1946 Cunningham received orders sending him back to sea duty, but his time as Commanding Officer of the U.S.S. CURTISS (AV-4). On the way to his new duty station, Captain Cunningham would stop in Boston, Massachusetts for C.I.C indoctrination for Commanding and Executive Officers, San Diego, California at the Training Command, Pacific Fleet, for two week instruction in Emergency Ship handling and at the completion of that training he reported to San Francisco, U.S. Naval Training and Distribution Center, Treasure Island, for instruction in Damage Control.
Captain Cunningham received a letter dated May 8, 1946 from an old classmate, Captain Benny Decker, who worked with Commander Fleet Activities, Yokosuka, Japan. He forwarded a letter addressed to Cunningham from a Mrs. Kay Nogami who was working as an interpreter for the Woman's Club of Yokosuka, which was doing charitable work for the poor of the city. The letter said, "Dear Cunningham, I was lucky to meet an old classmate of yours. I would like to know how you are enjoying your life after all these hard years for you. I returned to Japan on August 24, 1945. I am all right, but how things have changed. I did not feel that I came to my hometown, but to some strange country. Japan and Japanese have changed. Everyone is having a hard time now. I do not complain, because I have learned good lessons. I was the only one who returned out of the Kempei Staff Hospital. Do you communicate with Smith, Wooley, or Teters? If you do please tell Wooley whether he still remembers to return to me a golden fork. Didn't we have miserable times there? I just have same old time now. I cannot write very much now, but will soon. This is the time you have to help me to smuggle in some food to keep me out of starvation. Best wishes. Kay Nogami."132
Captain Cunningham wrote back to his friend Captain Decker, "Dear Benny, In regard to Mrs. Nogami I strongly urge that you give her serious consideration in the matter of employment. She was in a position to help me and several other war prisoners who had been recaptured after escaping from the Japs. She did give us substantial help, which I recall with great appreciation. I believe she has a great deal of liking and sympathy for Americans and can probably be trusted as far as any Japanese who is not an American citizen. I am enclosing $25.00, which I wish you would use to furnish Mrs. Nogami with food and any other supplies which you may see fit to do."133 Good deeds receive Good deeds in return.
On July 15, 1946 Captain Cunningham was forwarded the Presidential Unit Citation, Ribbon Bar and Bronze Star from Captain W.C. Thomas, Director, Medals and Awards. President Franklin Roosevelt awarded the Unit citation to "The Wake detachment of the 1st Defense Battalion, U.S. Marine Corps, under command of Major James P.S. Devereux, U.S. Marines and Marine Fighting Squadron 211 of Marine Aircraft Group 21, under command of Major Paul A. Putman, U.S. Marines and Army and Navy personnel present (italics added) for 'The courageous conduct of the officers and men who defended Wake Island against an overwhelming superiority of enemy air, sea, and land attacks from December 8 to 22, 1941, has been noted with admiration by their fellow countrymen and the civilized world, and will not be forgotten so long as gallantry and heroism are respected and honored. They are commended for their devotion to duty and splendid conduct at their battle stations under most adverse conditions. With limited defensive means against attacks in great force, they manned their shore installations and flew their aircraft so well that five enemy warships were either sunk or severely damaged, many hostile planes shot down, and an unknown number of land troops destroyed. Franklin Roosevelt.'"134
President Roosevelt personally signed the citation soon after the capture of Wake Island when the whereabouts of Commander Winfield Scott Cunningham was uncertain. In fact, the citation was written for the President by the Marine Corp public relations department. They might have "overlooked" the actual Navy Commander of Wake Island who was in charge, but when asked by the author in 1982 about his being "overlooked", Retired Rear Admiral Cunningham would say, "The Marines like to forget the fact that they are part of the Navy." On February 3, 1947, then Captain Cunningham, Commanding Officer, U.S.S. CURTISS, wrote the Chief of Naval Personnel, Admiral T.L. Sprague, in part the following, "2. It is noted that the names of two subordinate officers in the WAKE detachment are prominently mentioned in the Presidential Unit Citation, whereas the name of the commander of the entire detachment does not appear anywhere. 3. An opinion is requested as to whether the facts as stated in the above paragraph do not constitute a case of omission serious enough to warrant correction."135
Admiral T.L. Sprague, Chief of Naval Personal via the Chief of Naval Operations. Admiral Sprague would write the following to The Secretary of the Navy, "Subject: Professional Record of Originator. 1. Forwarded. 2. It is the carefully considered opinion of the Chief of Naval Personnel that in the official history of World War II, Captain Cunningham should be given full and equal credit along with Major (now Brigadier General) Devereux and Major (now Colonel) Putnam for the Defense of Wake Island. Moreover, it is recommended that an appropriately phrased Presidential Unit Citation be awarded to the Defenders of Wake Island under the command of Captain Winfield S. Cunningham."136 This was good news for Captain Cunningham. The official records would be changed to reflect the actual events. Good news until the March 6, 1947 when the official reply came from John Sullivan, Secretary of the Navy. It stated, "1. Enclosure is returned. 2. It is regretted that your name was omitted in the subject Presidential Unit Citation whereas two officers subordinate to you were mentioned therein. In view of the fact, however, that this citation was signed by the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt, it cannot be withdrawn and corrected. 3. The Secretary of the Navy fully appreciates the fact that you were in command of the U.S. forces at Wake Island during the period December 8 to 22, 1941."137
New official rules in the issuance of Presidential Unit Citations where only unit names and not individuals are mentioned, and the fact that a historical document could not be changed became the official line. The Navy would know of Cunningham's heroic efforts, but the public would forever know the Defense of Wake Island as a "strictly" Marine affair.
Captain Winfield Scott Cunningham joined the U.S.S. CURTISS as Commanding Officer June 12, 1946. He was a little resentful at first, because he believed his experience and long service warranted a command of a carrier wing. The CURTISS joined in fleet exercises, operated with patrol squadrons in the Formosa Strait, ferried men and supplies to outlying bases and made several visits to Tsingtao, China, until March 8, 1947. RADM J.F Bolger, Commander Fleet Air Wing ONE, completed the fitness report for Captain Cunningham for the period June 13 - September 29, 1946. He would report, "Captain Cunningham keeps a neat, clean ship and mobile in spite of wholesale demobilization of officers and men. He has an excellent military and personal character."138 Rear Admiral A. Soucek, Commander Fleet Air Wing One (I.S.I.C.), would complete the final fitness report for Cunningham's service with the U.S.S. CURTISS. For the period September 29 - February 28, 1947 the Admiral would write, "Captain Cunningham has performed his duties as Commanding Officer, U.S.S. CURTISS, and as a Task Group Commander in an efficient manner. He is an excellent seaman and Naval Aviator, and is recommended for promotion."139
On June 23, 1947 Cunningham was ordered to duty as Commanding Officer, Naval Technical Training Center, Memphis, Tennessee. He remained there until his honorable separation due to retirement as a Rear Admiral on June 30, 1950. RADM H.M. Martin, Chief of Naval Air Technical Training, would write the following on Captain Cunningham's final fitness report; "Captain Cunningham is retiring from the U.S. Navy after more than thirty years service. His career in the Navy has been a distinguished one and has included two wars. Most of this service was in the Aviation Branch of the Navy and he has participated in the development of that arm from its infancy to its present stature as the major weapon of this service. During his present tour of duty, he has made marked contributions to the science of educating technicians for Naval Aviation. His retirement will deprive this command of a distinguished and competent officer."140
After 33 years, 10 months and 13 days of Naval service, 3866 James Road, Memphis, Tennessee would become RADM Winfield Scott Cunningham's home of residence and prime golfing hunting ground. He returned to Wake Island only once after the war and it was on September 14, 1962 for the dedication of the new Wake Air Terminal. He proposed that a permanent memorial to those who gave their lives in defense of Wake. Admiral Cunningham said, "The blood of many brave men is mixed with the soil here and I look forward to the day when I can return and dedicate such a memorial."141 He spent years trying to correct the injustices he received at the hands of historians, the Navy and the Marine Corp. His book, Wake Island Command, did much to set the record straight concerning who led the actual defense of Wake Island, but efforts to correct the Presidential Unit citation, which name his subordinates, but not the Commanding Officer, goes on. A 1976 effort led by Leonn Boone, Wake Island defender Ralph Holewinski, historian Duane Schultz and Congressman Garry Brown (R-Michigan) had some success, but came up short again.
Retired Rear Admiral Winfield Scott Cunningham was thankful for the efforts led by Mr. Boone and we deeply disappointed by the new rejection. He wrote to Leonn Boone on October 20, 1976, "Dear Leonn, I appreciated the kind sediments (president Ford's), though also, of course, disappointed by the rejection of the case made for me by you and others. I am no more impressed by the reasoning in the letter than I was in 1947, by that on which the Secretary of the Navy based his rejection of my presentation. However, I shall leave it to those friends who have pleaded my case the decision as whether or not to pursue the matter further. Thanks again for the zeal you have exhibited in the case of the undersigned verses the forces of evil. Sincerely, Spiv Cunningham."142 The author and great nephew of Admiral Cunningham, Gregory Cunningham, led his own effort in 1984 with the same results, but will continue the good fight.
He lived happily in Memphis, Tennessee, until his death on March 3, 1986 at the age of 86. Cunningham's wife and daughter survived him, but were later interned with him at the Memphis National Cemetery.
Over the years other author's would come to the defense of Commander Winfield Scott Cunningham and agree that he was wronged by the Navy and should have been given equal credit for the heroic defense of Wake Island. Author Gregory J.W. Urwin wrote in his book The Siege of Wake Island: Facing Fearful Odds, "Cunningham deserves to be remembered as more than an impotent figurehead. His actions may not have been daring or glamorous, but they were essential to the garrison's day-to-day struggle to stay alive and keep punishing the Japanese. Cunningham did his duty."143 Author Duane Schultz wrote in his book Wake Island: The Heroic Gallant Fight, "This was a highly personal tragedy for Admiral Cunningham, one understandably difficult to accept passively, which is why he went to such lengths to correct the official record. He was on Wake, he was the ranking officer, he had to accept the responsibility for the decision to surrender, yet he received no recognition. He shared equally in the dangers, but unequally in later reward. His two attempts to escape from prison showed a high degree of courage in risking death, certainly as much as displayed by anyone on Wake. On the wide and jarring canvas of the whole war, Cunningham's personal tragedy is insignificant, but in the life of a career military officer it is a catastrophe of dramatic proportions."144
Another author, Naval Historian Robert J. Cressman, had this to say in his book, A Magnificent Fight: The Battle for Wake Island, "In the end, then, Spiv Cunningham indeed appears to have been treated unfairly by the predominant publicity accorded his subordinates - the fault of incompetent Navy Department public relations. The inter-service controversy that emerged is unfortunate because it casts a slight pall over the conduct of what had indeed been "a magnificent fight" carried out with resolution and courage by all concerned. There was enough glory for all."145 Finally, Lt. John Kinney, one of the foremost "Marine heroes," observed: "Commander Cunningham was the senior officer on the island and he actually exercised command. Major Devereaux was in charge of the defense of the island but he took his orders from Commander Cunningham...Usually the top man gets credit in a military operation, but this case seems to be different."146
Wake Island's defense was considered by the American people as a heroic action. It has found a place in history as gallant as the last stand at the Alamo. A special Navy Expeditionary Medal with silver "W" on the service ribbon bar, the only one of its kind during the war had been authorized for Wake's defenders. Cunningham would receive the Bronze Star in lieu of a second Navy Expeditionary Medal with "W". He already received the Navy Expeditionary Medal for his involvement in Honduras. A Presidential Unit Citation was awarded to the Navy and Marine personnel for "courageous conduct against an overwhelming superiority of enemy air, sea, and land attacks" during the period December 8-22, 1941...." The citation was authorized and signed personally by President Roosevelt himself. Winfield Scott Cunningham was awarded the Navy Cross for, "distinguished and heroic conduct in the line of his profession in the defense of Wake Island, December 7-22, 1941."
Along with the Presidential Unit Citation ribbon, Navy Cross, Bronze Star and Expeditionary Medal (Honduras), Rear Admiral Cunningham also has the World War I Victory Medal with Atlantic Fleet clasp, American Defense Service Medal with Fleet clasp, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, the Philippine Defense Ribbon, Navy Occupation Service Medal with "Asia" clasp, the World War II Victory Medal, China Service Medal, Honorable Service lapel button, and the Prisoner of War Medal. The Navy Personnel Command Liaison Office in St. Louis, Missouri was kind enough to send a set of replacement medals. The descendants of Winfield Scott Cunningham will forever cherish the medals and collected memories.
Here is a list of sources for researchers. I purposely declined to list any source that was proven to be "ghost" written or heavily flawed in its research. I highly recommend the following:
Wake Island Command by Winfield Scott Cunningham, Little, Brown 1961, A Siege of Wake Island: Facing Fearful Odds by Gregory Urwin, University of Nebraska Press 1997, Wake Island: The Heroic Gallant Fight by Duane Schultz, St. Martin Press 1978, A Magnificent Fight: The Battle for Wake Island, by Robert J. Cressman, Naval Institute Press 1995, Wake Island Pilot by Brig. Gen. John F. Kinney, Enemy on Island: Issue in Doubt by Stan Cohen, Pictorial Histories Publishing, Missoula, MT 1983, Prisoners of the Japanese by Gavan Daws, William Morrow and Company, Inc. 1994, The US Navy in W.W.II by S.E. Smith, Quill William Morrow, New York 1966, Guests of the Emperor: The Story of Dick Darden by James Darden III, The Greenhouse Press, Clinton, NC, A Special Valor: The U.S. Marines and the Pacific War by Richard Wheeler, Harper and Row, New York 1983, Hell Wouldn't Stop: An Oral History of the Battle of Wake Island, by Chet Cunningham, Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York 2002, Pacific Alamo: The Battle for Wake Island, by John Wukovits, New American Library, New York, 2003 and The Official Chronology of the U.S. Navy in World War II by Robert J. Cressman, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland 2000. For two very personal accounts from Wake Island survivors read, Do You Understand, Huh? A POW's Lament, 1941 - 1945 by Theodore A. Abraham, Jr., Sunflower University Press, Yuma, Kansas, 1992 and Avail The Time: Prison Tales 1941 - 1945 by Don Tomas Landreth, Thief Zone Publishing, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, 2000.