Winfield Scott Cunningham
by Gregory Robert Cunningham
The state of Wisconsin has many sons and daughters who helped build and protect this great nation. Many of these same Wisconsin sons and daughters where born with the surname Cunningham. 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 and fought at the battles of Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and Allatoona and Private Henry Cunningham fought at Cold Harbor, Richmond and Petersburg.
Three of Michael Cunningham's sons from his second marriage, Earl Thomas, Hayes Farrell, and Kenneth Noble Cunningham all served during World War I. Earl Cunningham was a Private in the Medical Training Department, Hayes Cunningham was a Private in Company B, 341st Infantry, and Kenneth Cunningham was a Seaman 2cl. 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 and Monroe Cunningham were Privates in the Marine Corp.
Michael Cunningham's son from his first marriage, Fredrick Michael Cunningham of Rockbridge and Camp Douglas, Wisconsin, had two children serve in World War I. Chester B. Cunningham was a Private in the United States Army 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 grow up to become the Commander of the gallant heroes of Wake Island, the winner of the United States Navy Cross and would retire as a Rear Admiral.
Winfield Scott Cunningham was born in Rockbridge, Wisconsin on February 16, 1900 the son of Frederick Michael and Ruth Moore Cunningham. 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. In 1916, at the age of sixteen, Winfield was appointed to the United States Naval Academy. 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."
His Class of 1920 graduated on June 6, 1919. Classes graduated early due to the War. According to the United States Academy Annual Register for the graduating class of June 6, 1919, Winfield was ranked 184th in order of general merit out of a class of 467 members. 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."
After graduation in 1919, he was assigned to the naval transport MARTHA WASHINGTON, and later served successively in the USS SCORPION and USS WHIPPLE, in European waters. His first cruise was changed from ferrying troops home from Europe to a military mission in the Near East. They were sent to investigate the question of whether the United States should take over the mandate for Armenia. Winfield then served two years with a squadron 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.
Winfield had his own adventure off the coast of Constantinople when he had a hand in ramming a British war ship. Here is how Winfield explained it; "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, 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."
The adventure 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."
After the SCORPION, Winfield joined the battleship USS WHIPPLE. As the Red Army approached the Black Sea, they helped evacuate White Russian refugees from the Transcaucasus, taking them to the island of Prinkipo from which they later migrated to Constantinople. Baron General Peter Wrangel, commanding the White Russian forces in the area pulled his force back to Sevastopol in a desperate rear-guard action. The WHIPPLE and destroyers OVERTON and 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. 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. 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. Admiral McCully stood on the bridge of the USS OVERTON and announced over a megaphone while the WHIPPLE past, “Well done WHIPPLE.”
After the refugee rescue mission the WHIPPLE resumed her duties as station ship and mail carrying duties with the Near Eastern Naval Detachment and continued these tasks until early spring 1921. On May 2, 1921, the USS WHIPPLE transferred to duty with the Asiatic Fleet. 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. They operated out of Cavite in the winter months, conducting tactical exercises in the Philippines until heading north to North China ports in the spring for operations out of Tsingtao. They had torpedo and gunnery practices at Chefoo on the north coast of Shantung. Winfield also served as second officer on the ancient gunboat PAMPANGA assigned to patrol the river delta between Hong Kong and Canton and some two hundred miles up the Si Kiang into the interior around Wuchow in Kwangi Province. 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."
After four years overseas Winfield hoped for a little shore duty, but upon his return to the United States, he joined the light cruiser USS 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. 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. 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.
Aviation was still a new thing in the Navy, and was looked on with disfavor by many in the senior ranks. 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 put in periodic requests for flight training, and in the fall of 1924 my application was favorably acted on." He was ordered to the Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida, for flight training. Designated a Naval Aviator (aviator number 3226) on September 11, 1925, he rejoined the USS MILWAUKEE in October of that year, to serve with her aviation unit until early 1926. They embarked for the 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.”
Winfield traded billets with an officer in the battleship OKLAHOMA that was based in California most of the time. So in June 1926 he transferred to the aviation unit of the battleship USS OKLAHOMA, operating with Division 3, Battleships Divisions, Battle Fleet. 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 there that Winfield qualified for landings on the Navy’s first aircraft carrier, the old LANGLEY.
It was here 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 and off to the Atlantic for the battleships next cruise. They continued intensive exercises during that summers Midshipmen Cruise, 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. The OKLAHOMA returned later in the year to the Navy yard for modernization.
He served on the OKLAHOMA for a year before reporting to the USS LANGLEY to serve with Observation Squadron 2 based on the carrier. The LANGLEY was tied up at the dock in San Diego most of the time, so 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, coming the area for a sign of life, but no survivors were found.” Winfield was with the LANGLEY until April 1928.
The next two years he was on shore duty at the Naval Air Station, Pearl Harbor, T.H. These were pleasant days on the islands for the peacetime Navy. During his next period of sea duty, he served three years of catapult duty aboard the battleship USS CALIFORNIA, flagship of Battle Fleet with additional duty with Battle Force. Life continued to move quietly when in June 1933 he transferred to Annapolis, Maryland where he became Executive Officer of Training Squadron VN8D5 based on the old station ship, the REINA MERCEDES. He was at the Naval Academy post until July 1935.
In July 1935 he was assigned as Executive Officer of Fighting Squadron 2 which was an eighteen-plane unit, based on the aircraft carrier USS 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. In November 1936 he was given his own command of assembling and training a fighter squadron for the first USS YORKTOWN. The YORKTOWN was commissioned at the Naval Operating Base (NOB) in Norfolk, Virginia, on September 30, 1937. Captain Ernest D. McWhorter was in command. From April 1937 until June 1938 Cunningham commanded Fighting Squadron 7, later re-designated Fighting Squadron 5, based on that carrier. His squadron was chosen to represent the Navy at the National Air Races in Cleveland in 1937. 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 Cristobal, Panama, Canal Zone.
In the summer of 1938, Winfield, Louise and their new daughter Valerie, went once again to Oakland, California where Winfield became commanding officer of the Naval Reserve Aviation Base. Winfield had three reserve aviation squadrons in his command, two being Navy and one Marine Corps. The January 1940 Fleet Problem was a great success for Cunningham’s command. Winfield's superior officer 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.
In April of 1940, he joined the USS WRIGHT based at Pearl Harbor, and served as her Navigator 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. In September 1941, WRIGHT was selected as the flagship of PatWing 1, Aircraft and Scouting Force.
The easy years were over, but even then few of the military realized it. Winfield 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?” The Navy’s outlook was soon to change for good very quickly in December 1941.
After eighteen months on the USS WRIGHT Winfield was hoping for stateside duty to be with his wife and daughter. Instead orders were received to go to Johnston Island to take command of the new naval air base, but in the middle of November he received new orders. A more urgent need was at Wake Island, since the assigned commander could not immediately arrive. Winfield 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.” 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’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, an officer in the office of Commandant of the Fourteenth Naval District, briefed Captain 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. This made Winfield feel that he may not be going into the hornet’s nest after all. There was not much concern for international events at the meeting. December 7, 1941 (December 8th Wake Island time) was about to change everything.
As a fitting farewell to its navigator, it was the USS WRIGHT that delivered Winfield 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.
The development of Wake Island as a naval air station and variations of the events that soon befell on its defenders is well documented. I highly recommend Winfield Scott Cunningham's book Wake Island Command published by Little, Brown in 1961 for complete details.
The first few days at Wake Island for Winfield were the calm before a storm. The storm came 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. 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.
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 36 twin-tailed bombers slipped under the low-lying clouds at about two thousand feet around noon. They came in from the south in three 12-plane V's. 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 with 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." 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.
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!” Gunner Hamas relayed the orders to the batteries around the atoll and the five-inch guns opened up.
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 cruiser's 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 including a new surprise on December 22nd. 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. A 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. 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."
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. 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 stop 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 this 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.
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. 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.
For the entire campaign, the score was impressive. The Japanese lost hundreds in their efforts to capture Wake Island, especially in the sinking of two battleships. Almost a hundred Japanese lost their lives on Wilkes alone.
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." Winfield and twenty-nine other officers were herded into the ship's mailroom. They were lucky. 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."
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." 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. After the war it was 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. See The Evening Capital, November 2, 1946, for an article titled Academy Class Rings Lost On Wake Turn Up In Kimono Sleeve of Woman In Japan for full details.
This same guard commander gathered 150 spectators together 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." 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. He was never found. Such brutality was a trademark of many Japanese soldiers.
On January 23, 1942 Commander Cunningham arrived at the destination of his first prisoner of war camp. 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. The enlisted men and civilians were packed thirty-six to a barracks and officers were two or three to the smaller rooms. All were unheated and extremely uncomfortable. Colonel Yuse commanded the prisoner’s new home.
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." Thoughts began turning escaping. 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 USS 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 USS 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." After hours of searching for a sampan without luck they decided to try and contact a local Chinese farmer for help. 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." 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. Their luck was running out. Winfield and the other escapee's were taken to Shanghai on March 14th 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. 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."
They stayed a month at the Bridge House and were transferred to the Kiang-wan Military Prison on the outskirts of Shanghai on April 14, 1942. Upon arriving 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 until they found out what their punishment was going to be. 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."
They were brought before yet another court of officers and tried again before finally hearing their sentence. Woolley, Smith and Winfield received ten year's imprisonment, two for Teters and one for Loo. 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." Seven days later they were moved to the Shanghai Municipal Gaol, also referred to as Ward Road Gaol, to serve their sentences. 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 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.
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." 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.
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. The Chinese doctors diagnosed Winfield as having nervous indigestion and he was sent to the Police Hospital for three weeks. His diarrhea stopped and a new rule, which allowed them to purchase food through the Swiss Consul, brought his weight back up to 160 by summer.
As Winfield's strength returned, so did his efforts to escape. A second attempt was made to escape on October 6, 1944. Eight men made the attempt with Cunningham. They split up into two groups and tried to make it to the friendly Nationalist Chinese in the countryside. Only one of the groups was successful. Cunningham became a prisoner again. His freedom was short, but he believed it was worth the try. Cunningham wondered what would happen to someone who escaped twice. Would the Japanese anger lead to the death penalty?
Cunningham 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. 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." 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."
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." The Japanese did not expect Commander Cunningham to live through the winter. Cunningham did survive the harsh winter and was taken out of solitary. He was put in the cell of former Ward Road prison mates Pat Herndon and Marine Corporal Battles. Cunningham also learned that four of the Doolittle flyers were in the prison.
By spring Cunningham started to recover and was cheered by the bombing in Nanking. They all cheered when a P-51 sprayed the prison yard with machine gun bullets. On August 1, 1945 they were moved by train to Peking.
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." 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."
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." 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. He returned to the United States by air and arrived back at his home in Annapolis, Maryland on Saturday, September 8, 1945. After a physical checkup at the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland Commander Cunningham reported to temporary duty in the Bureau of Naval Personnel, Navy Department, Washington, D.C., in November 1945.
On May 3, 1946 Cunningham went back to sea as Commanding Officer of the USS CURTISS (AV-4). 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. In June 1947 Cunningham was ordered to duty as Commanding Officer, Naval Technical Training Center, Memphis, Tennessee. He remained there until his retirement as a Rear Admiral on June 30, 1950. Memphis, Tennessee became his home of residence where he happily lived until his death on March 3, 1986. Cunningham's wife and daughter survived him, but were later interned with him at the Memphis National Cemetery.
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 a silver "W" on the service ribbon bar, the only one of its kind during the war, had been authorized for Wake's defenders. 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, the Navy Cross, the Expeditionary Medal with a silver "W", Rear Admiral Cunningham also has the World War I Victory Medal, American Defense Service Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, the Philippine Defense Ribbon, the World War II Victory Medal, Combat Action Ribbon and the POW Medal.
Here is a list 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, Missoala, 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, and The Official Chronology of the U.S. Navy in World War II by Robert J. Cressman, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland 2000.