Pearl Harbor survivor Cunningham still remembers

Pearl Harbor survivor Cunningham still remembersBy DIANA REGIER

News Review Correspondent

As we close in on the 76th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the last known survivor living in Kern County took time to share his vivid memories of that fateful day with this reporter.

Lake Isabella resident Bob Cunningham recently returned from Kern County Honor Flight 31 — a program that escorts the most senior veterans in our region on a stirring visit to the memorials in the National Mall of Washington, D.C. Cunningham was the eldest of the World War II and Korean heroes on that flight, according to Program Coordinator Gary Zuber.

Cunningham joined the Navy Reserve right out of high school. He remembers that it was the same day his brother received his draft papers for the Army. This was not Cunningham’s first attempt to sign upm though. He tells a story of when he and few other boys went truant from Chowchilla High School and drove to Fresno to enlist. When his parents found out, they refused to sign the paperwork. So he had to wait until he was of age.

After boot camp at San Diego, Cunningham was sent to Long Beach, where he found himself aboard a vessel bound for Hawaii. USS Vestal, a repair ship, arrived at Pearl Harbor in November 1941 and was moored alongside USS Arizona to begin repairs.

The morning of Dec. 7, 1941, most of the crew of Vestal were finishing breakfast when they heard aircraft and explosions. Cunningham recalls that everyone on board assumed it was just the sounds of training exercises from nearby Hickham Field.

However, when they went on deck, they saw Hickham Field under attack and then witnessed a gun turret of the Arizona take a hit. On the Vestal, the call to general quarters and to man battle stations was given. The Vestal also received several hits — one of which propelled the commanding officer and some of the crew overboard.

With the damage to the ship, “the next orders were to abandon ship,” said Cunningham.

“I was at the gangway and the commander was just being brought back on board.” He recalls that the skipper was yelling for all to stay on board and get the Vestal underway. “The skipper saved the ship and many lives by moving it away from the Arizona and running it aground in shallow water.”

Another memory during that morning was an heroic effort by a boatswain’s mate who was getting ready to throw off the last mooring rope tethering the Vestal to the Arizona when a sailor on the Arizona was attempting to get across the rope to safety. The Vestal boatswain wrapped the rope around his body and leaned back to make the rope taut, which allowed the other sailor to get to safety, thus probably saving his life. USS Vestal was later awarded a battle star for courageous actions under fire that day.

Cunningham received burn on his back during the battle and was instructed to go to sick bay and have it tended. “When I looked in, I saw it was full of men with far worse injuries. So I left without being seen.”

About a month and a half after the events at Pearl Harbor, Cunningham was sent back to the states aboard YMS 14, a minesweeper stationed in Long Beach. The ship covered the California coast from Santa Barbara to San Diego and was the first of three minesweepers he served aboard during the remainder of his wartime service.

“After seeing Pearl Harbor, it was fine with me to be assigned stateside.” He was in the Naval Reserves a total of 4 years, 1 month, and 14 days, ending his service as a gunner’s mate, 2nd class.

While Cunningham was in Long Beach, he met his wife Gertrude. He knew “she was the one” after the first 30 minutes. They were married 51 1/2 years before she passed away.

After his service, Cunningham used the G.I. Bill to attend Bible college and become an ordained minister. He served in churches in Kansas, Missouri, North Carolina, Georgia and California where he retired from the ministry.

Cunningham said he had a good time on the Honor Flight, which was not his first trip to the nation’s capital, but was his first time to go as a tourist.

On his return to Bakersfield, he had a surprise. A young lady there helped him during an interview. His hearing aide wasn’t working, so she was typing the questions on her phone for him to read. Afterwards, he thanked her and asked her name. She told him. Cunningham then remarked he had a granddaughter by the same name. She said, “I am your granddaughter, Tami.” The next day he was surprised again when his daughter and her husband from Texas arrived to take him home to Isabella.

In the month since his flight, he joked, “I have been busier and received more attention than the rest of my 94 years!” Since his return from Washington, D.C., he has been interviewed on TV and by several newspapers. Last week he rode in the Lake Isabella Christmas Parade. In December he will be the gGrand marshall in the Bakersfield Christmas Parade with the theme “A Patriotic Christmas.”

Cunningham has returned to Pearl Harbor with his first wife and then again with his second wife, who died of cancer after 9 1/2 years of marriage.

“I still drive and get around pretty well,” he said. Sometimes he drives 90 miles to church. “How many people do that at any age?” He is still married to his third wife, though she is in a care facility in Visalia where he visits her monthly. Cunningham remarked that he has always enjoyed life ever since he knew what was going on.

In remembering Pearl Harbor, he said, “We shouldn’t forget — we should always remember … I still love this country and I’m tired of football players dishonoring the flag and the country.”

“I wouldn’t trade good ol’ America for all the rest of the countries in the world put together!”

— Pictured: Bob Cunningham and his caretaker at the Washington Monument. — Courtesy photo

Story First Published: 2017-12-01