Midway Survivor Recounts Historic Battle

Story Number: NNS090624-22Release Date: 6/24/2009 9:01:00 PM
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By Marsha Childs, Naval Hospital Jacksonville Public Affairs

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (NNS) -- Retired Chief Boatswain's Mate James H. Cunningham shared his heroic experiences from World War II, which earned him a Purple Heart in 1942, with the Naval Hospital Jacksonville staff here during morning colors June 5.

Cunningham, 87, participated in two major naval battles in World War II, to include surviving the sinking of the USS Hammann (DD-412) at the Battle of Midway.

A native of West Virginia, Cunningham enlisted in the Navy at age 18 in April 1940.

"There was a depression going on then and you were lucky to get in the service back in those days for $21 a month," Cunningham recalled.

He reported to the Hammann in October 1940.

"I was a big deal, a seaman. All I had to do was take care of the captain's gig, and when the captain wanted to go somewhere, I had to take him - an ole hill-billy in charge of the captain's gig," Cunningham chuckled.

The Hammann was home ported in Hawaii, but the destroyer was underway searching the North Atlantic for German submarines. When the Japanese made their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, Hammann was docked in Reykjavk, Iceland.

The shocking attack thrust the United States into World War II.

In retaliation, Air Force Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle led a bombing raid on the Japanese mainland in April 1942. His bold plan to launch land-based B-25 bombers from the deck of a carrier was a feat never before attempted.

Doolittle's raid made the Japanese realize that their homeland was not impervious to attack.

To strengthen their defensive position, the Imperial Japanese Forces decided to invade and occupy strategic targets in the South Pacific near the Coral Sea.

"When we got back to Pearl Harbor, we tagged up with the (USS) Yorktown (CV-5) again and took off for the Coral Sea. We spent over 100 days at sea out there operating against the Japanese," Cunningham remembered.

The Battle of Coral Sea was the first major battle of the Pacific war fought May 4-8, 1942, in the waters between New Guinea, Australia and the Solomon Islands. Japanese and U.S. carrier forces exchanged air strikes for two straight days.

"We sank one of the Japanese carriers and damaged one. We ended up losing 'Lady Lex,' the USS Lexington (CV-2). Even after the battle was over, she was making 27 knots and they couldn't put the fire out. By that evening, it was just blazing with bombs going off. They had to abandon the ship. We picked up about 300 survivors off the Lexington. We all took off back to Pearl," Cunningham recalled.

Yorktown repairs were expected to take a month, but the commander of Pacific Fleet, Adm. Chester Nimitz needed the carrier group back in the fight.

Although the Japanese won a tactical victory, they took heavy losses, which would later have enormous consequences at the Battle of Midway.

"If the Japanese had defeated us in the Coral Sea, they had money printed up to invade Australia and New Zealand. The Aussies still remember that. They (Japan) had just taken the Philippines," Cunningham said.

To extend Japan's defensive perimeter in the Pacific, Japanese Imperial Navy Combined Fleet Commander Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto planned to attack the U.S., mid-Pacific base at Midway and establish a forward outpost.

American code breakers accurately predicted the attack on Midway. Nimitz used the decoded information to plan an ambush on the Japanese.

During an air battle June 4, 1942, the Hammann screened the Yorktown, helping to shoot down Japanese attack aircraft. Despite the Hammann's effort, Japanese dive bombers and torpedo planes severely damaged the carrier.

"We had the (USS) Enterprise (CV-6) and the (USS) Hornet (CV-12) there with us, and when the Japanese attacked, they all came at the Yorktown. We were attacked about four or five times. The Yorktown ended up with an 18 degree list. They thought she was going to turn over so they abandoned ship," said Cunningham.

The Hammann picked up survivors from the water.

"The next morning we went back, and the Yorktown is still floating," he said.

The Hammann tied up next to the Yorktown on June 6 to transfer a damage control party and provide power, hoses and water for fire fighting.

"We sent a 200-man salvage crew aboard there and by four o'clock they had taken a three degree list off. One of the ships out there hollered, 'Hammann, torpedoes are heading your way,' and of course, our ship sounded general quarters," Cunningham explained.

He ran back to his gun station on the fantail.

"I stood there and here come four torpedoes. I watched them coming in. We couldn't do anything. We were tied up tight against the Yorktown. Then one torpedo hit us and two hit the Yorktown."

The Hammann began sinking in minutes.

Cunningham said, "I took my shoes off. I dove into the oily water. I got a hold of a life vest. I swam out to a life raft and it was filled up. There was one guy sitting in the center and the blood was just squirting out of his mouth."

Eighty Sailors, about one-third of the crew, were killed, and many more badly injured in the water when her depth charges exploded as she sank.

"I raised myself up on the life raft, not too far. I raised myself a little out of the water. I didn't know till years later that both guys on both sides of me died and just floated away. If I hadn't done that one little thing by pulling myself up a few inches out of the water, I'd have been out in the Midway feeding fish. It's 16,000 feet deep there," Cunningham said.

After the explosions had subsided, the survivors in the water and on rafts hoped to be rescued by ships in the area. The raft Cunningham was clinging to was overturned and the paddles were attached to the bottom of the boat.

"I got my knife out, dived under the raft and cut them loose,"

He handed the paddles to the able-bodied Sailors.

"Some were so excited they weren't even hitting the water, and I yelled at them, 'Hey come on and get that paddle down in the water. We have got to get to that ship out there,' I'll never forget that," Cunningham said.

The USS Benham (DD-397) rescued Cunningham and more than 700 survivors. They were taken to Pearl Harbor where they were greeted by Nimitz and Adm. William Halsey Jr., 3rd Fleet commander.

"They lined us up, the wounded up on the back. I was in there. We got to shake hands with them. Then the guys that were injured had to go to the hospital. I had internal injuries. I had blood coming out of my mouth. I know that was from the blast. I was only in there for about a week, something like that," Cunningham recalled.

The Battle of Midway turned the tide in the Pacific war, making the two opposing forces essentially equal.

It was only four years later that the United States and allies forces took the offensive and ultimately brought down the Japanese Empire.

For more news from Naval Hospital Jacksonville, visit www.navy.mil/local/nhjax/.

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