John William Cunningham, Jr. was born 1 Feb 1924 at Boggs Run, Marshall County, West Virginia. He was the second child and only son of John Wilbur Cunningham and Mary Angela Pearl. They considered him a "Junior" because he had the same middle initial as his father, if not the middle name itself. From the time he was born, he was called "Jack."
Jack had an older sister, Ruth Mary, and two younger sisters, Helen Rebecca and Anna Mae. Anna Mae moved to Connecticut after her marriage but the rest of the family lived in Marshall County their entire lives. Their father, John, was born in Ritchie County in 1901 and had moved with his family to Boggs Run soon after he was born.
Following graduation from Union High School in 1941, Jack worked as a clerk in the Shipping Office at the Wheeling Steel plant in Center Benwood. He lived on Boggs Run and walked to work through the old Boggs Run tunnel that connected Boggs Run with State Route 2, near Fourth Street in Benwood. The tunnel was pitch dark and he said he whistled all the way through, partly because he was afraid, but also to let others know his location so they didn't run into each other.
Jack was registered at the Selective Service Board in Marshall County but he enlisted 28 Oct 1942 at Wheeling, to serve for 3 years with the U. S. Navy. He said he was nothing more than a 90-pound kid when left home to go to war but, like most young men he knew, he felt obliged to serve his country.
He wasn't very big but he was strong and had been an amateur boxer under Coach Harry Bonar.
The details of his service in the Navy from 28 Oct 1942 through 14 Oct 1945 are essentially unknown. Like many veterans of the war, he didn't talk about his experiences. However, the traumatic events of his war years profoundly affected him for the rest of his life. He suffered from depression and was obviously a victim of what we now call "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder." He became a functioning alcoholic and only on the rare occasions that he was very drunk, did he reveal the little his family ever knew about his pain. - In the interview with his granddaughter in 1991, he summed it up himself by saying, "I was a hill boy who never was on a bus or train. The change into that big, crazy world had a bad effect on me. Then after the years in the service (two over seas), you are suddenly discharged and back to being a hill boy. The changes were too much for a shy hill boy who didn't know much except the hills of West Virginia. That affected me much more than the war itself..."
Jack's best friend, at one point during his service, was a young man named "Sam." He had grown up in orphanages and had no family. Jack had written to his parents about him and they invited Sam to become a part of their family when the war was over. Sadly, Sam was killed in an attack on the ship, after which Jack and other survivors had to scrape the remains of their fallen comrades from the surfaces of the ship. - Several years later, Jack named his first and only son, SAM.
From Jack's Separation Papers: USNRS., Charlestown, W. Va.; NTS, Nob Norfolk, Va; USS NEW YORK: R/S New York, N. Y. Nob, Cassablanca, F. M.; Nob, Palermo, Sicily; R/S Nob, Nob, Va.; RS, NYd, Phila., Pa.; NTS, Newport, R.I.; USS DONNER LSD-20.
Jack was in the "amphibs" and was on one ship called the LST-4. This may have been the ship on which he participated in taking the soldiers and supplies to shore. He addresses that experience in the interview with his granddaughter that follows. At discharge, Jack was a Shipfitter 2c(T).
|Jack & Unknown 1|
|Jack & Unknown 2|
|Jack & Unknown 3|
|Jack & Unknown 4|
WHEELING WEST VIRGINIA
By Jack Cunningham
|I've roamed these countries over,|
|And here's one thing I can tell,|
|Home I know is heaven|
|Cause these places sure are hell.|
|They can talk of Bezerta|
|And old Oran, too,|
|But they can have it all|
|When my work is through.|
|They can talk of old Casa|
|Or towns of Sicily,|
|But Wheeling, West Virginia|
|Is good enough for me.|
|They can talk of their Italy,|
|Where wonders never cease,|
|But I'll still take old Wheeling,|
|That's in a land of peace.|
|So listen to my story|
|And don't leave the ones you love,|
|I just hope I can return soon,|
|I pray to God above.|
In May 1945, while in Providence, Rhode Island, Jack married Ruth E. Smith, a sixteen year old friend of his sister, Anna Mae. They had met when he was home on leave and he soon asked her to marry him because he wanted someone to be at home waiting for his return. "Ruthie's" brother, Shaffer Smith, also a sailor, married Jack's sister, Anna Mae.
When the war was over, Jack and Ruthie, Shaffer & Anna Mae and perhaps sister, Helen, and her husband, resided in the two, small upstairs rooms in the home of Jack's parents on Brown's Run, just off Boggs Run. The young couples, and countless others like them, faced many challenges as they looked to the future.
Jack began an apprenticeship as a welder under the G. I. Bill. He was paid a small salary and managed to get a loan to buy his Uncle Herman Cunningham's bungalow house "up the run," at the bottom of the hill that goes up to Route 86. Herman and his family moved to a house further "down the run."
At the end of 1946, Jack and Ruthie had their first child, Samuel Joseph. Thirteen months later they had a daughter, Linda Lee. Jack realized he was married to a young woman he really didn't love, and, with two children and little money, he felt overwhelmed.
In those early, post-war years, Jack was often penniless. He later said, "There were many times I felt desperate. I knew I could ask my Dad for money and he would have given it to me. But if I had done that, I could never have looked my dad in the eye again and he would have lost all respect for me."
Once Jack was a certified welder, he had steady employment but he never did make much money. He worked at a small foundry and machine shop and he stayed because he was the only welder and his own boss. Ruthie worked at home, crocheting doilies and doll clothes to sell for Christmas money. She also took in ironing and made and sold rag rugs. For several years, she was a cook at the Boggs Run Elementary School where Sam and Linda went to school. In 1960, with only an eighth grade education, Ruthie graduated from the Practical Nursing school at the hospital in Glen Dale.
The work and the struggle of Jack and Ruthie resulted in a marriage that was based on a deep and abiding love. They said there were many times in the early years that they might have gotten divorced if they had been able to afford it. But they "didn't have one penny to rub against another" and they stayed together. Jack said, "we built our marriage brick by brick..."
Sam graduated from Union High in 1964. On the day of his graduation, Jack and Ruthie announced that they were expecting another child. Sam was in college and Linda was a senior at Sherrard High when Lori Lynn was born in 1965.
In the summer of 1966, Jack and Ruthie sold their house and property on Boggs Run and moved to Allendale. They purchased a trailer and put it on a lot they had bought from Jack's Uncle Floyd, his father's brother, who had been married to Ruthie's widowed mother since about 1950.
In 1968, Jack and Ruthie had their fourth child, Lisa Jo.
Jack and Ruthie were exemplary human beings and wonderful parents. They didn't talk about their values or their religion, they just lived their beliefs every day of their lives.
Ruthie died in 1984, at the age of 55, during heart bypass surgery in Pittsburgh. Jack died at his apartment at the "mouth of the run" in May 2000. They are buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery, Marshall County.
By Kelli Lynn Fluharty
Note: This was a project for a college history class. The original letter from Jack Cunningham is in the Archives at Nicholls State University, Thibodaux, Louisiana.
My grandfather, John William Cunningham, is the only World War II veteran I know. My earliest memories of him are also related to my first awareness that there was a World War II. During our frequent visits with him while I was growing up, I learned that much of his current behavior and who he really is, is closely related to his war experiences. I have always been intrigued by his story, most of which has been pieced together by family members as a result of tearful tales he told while he was drunk.
In the forty-five years since the end of the World War II, my grandfather has remained virtually silent about his service in the U.S. Navy. Nightmares about the war still occur but only during bouts of heavy drinking has he ever revealed any of his thoughts and feelings about that period of his life. Although he has had a close, loving relationship with his wife and four children, he has kept his memories of the war to himself. Even now, these memories seem to cause him great pain.
Because my grandfather has never openly discussed his Navy experiences, I wasn't certain he would agree to any kind of interview on the subject. For my entire life I have been told that "Pap" had some bad war memories that made him drink and have nightmares and I knew that I should NEVER mention it. However, I did contact him at his home in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia and he reluctantly agreed to answer my questions in writing.
The only son of a mountaineer family, Pap was eighteen when he enlisted in the Navy in 1942. He had graduated high school and, still unmarried and living at home with his parents, was working at Wheeling Steel Corporation as an office worker. He said, "All the events at the time the war began made me feel as though I must do my share, so I enlisted.... When I joined the Navy my parents were surprised. My friends, at least most of them, were in or were about to go. Those who did not go if they could, lost full respect forever... My friends and I got along fine after the war. During the war your friends were closer. I lost respect for those who could have gone but didn't."
Pap and two of his very good friends left West Virginia and traveled by bus and train to Norfolk, Virginia for four weeks of "boot camp." Pap says, "This was no ways near adequate." He emerged from the training a Seaman Second Class. He said he made many friends during those four weeks but he said, "They were soon just a memory. I kept in touch with one, but he is now deceased."
The sailors, Pap says, were always treated "good but firm." He said, "My superiors always treated you good as long as you did as you were told. Any hazing was mild and in fun. We were too busy for that." He claims that the food they ate was not fancy but it was good. He found the medical care to be better than he had expected and he says that the military equipment was as good as could be provided at the time. According to him, he didn't notice any racial discrimination "because I was from up north."
After Pap finished "boot camp," he went to a Service School for sixteen weeks. Then, about six months after he enlisted, he was sent over seas aboard the U.S.S. L.S.T.4. He said the first "action" was an air raid so there was no real contact. However, he said, "On the way over we were followed by a wolf pack of subs and that was for twenty-seven days." Regarding battles, he said, "In the Navy, the big danger was from mines, torpedoes and air raids. I was in the amphibs and our job was taking supplies and troops to the beach. As for casualties, our flotilla was numerous landing craft. I saw several of them lost to different things. I have no idea how many lives were lost. I only saw a couple who broke down. Mostly, the men just took it day by day and held up good. The officers were men the same as the enlisted and done a good job. They set good examples for the men... I don't think anyone can understand war. I think if we had not gone to war over there, later they would have been over here... I think all wars are fought for greed, power and politics."
My grandparents, like so many others, were married during the war while Pap was on leave. My grandmother was only sixteen years old and they barely knew each other but Pap wanted someone waiting for him, perhaps so he could be optimistic about the future.
Pap says he was happy when the war was over but that he later became depressed and cried. He said, "I cried for no real reason. I knew later the reason was that I was a hill boy who never was on a bus or train. The change into that big, crazy world had a bad effect on me. Then after the years in the service (two over seas), you are suddenly discharged and back to being a hill boy. The changes were too much for a shy hill boy who didn't know much except the hills of West Virginia. That affected me much more than the war itself... I think Germany and Japan suffered enough in the war, especially the civilians. All the people of the world suffered, so no one won. I did not celebrate as I was at sea. You don't celebrate when so many people died or were crippled or had mental problems. I got discharged shortly after the war was over, October 14, 1945.
Following the war, Pap said, "I was treated fairly good when I got home. There was not any parades or parties. I was depressed for quite some time. As I said, it was due to the sudden changes. I went back to work two days after I got home. I was not treated too good by the place where I worked, but the people treated me fine. I did resent the ones who stayed home. They made all the big money and we paid the price. I joined the American Legion when I came home."
My grandfather did not expand his answers any more than necessary to answer my questions. He says that this is the most he has written in fifty years and I'm certain that is the most that he has ever said about the war during a lucid moment.
One particularly interesting story about Pap's war years (told on many occasions while he was drunk) comes from my grandmother and my great-grandmother. Pap had three sisters and had always wanted a brother. During the war he became very close to another sailor on his ship. His name was Sam and he had spent his entire life in an orphanage. Pap had made plans with his parents and with Sam to take Sam back to West Virginia with him after the war to be a part of his own family. However, in an attack on their ship, Sam was blown up into little pieces while standing not far from my grandfather on the ship. Later, my grandfather and his mates had to literally scrape their friends' remains from the floors and other surfaces of the ship. - - Pap named his only son, Sam.
My family believes that some traumatic event, possibly the attack that killed Sam and many others, occurred at Christmas time. It is during this season every year that Pap is the most depressed and melancholy and when he drinks the most.
There have been other wars since World War II and with each there has been an increasing awareness of the mental and emotional effects of war that often impair the veterans as greatly as physical injuries. It seems that my grandfather would have been an excellent candidate for psychiatric care to deal with what is now being called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It also seems a shame that my family wasn't able to help him more. As it is, he has continued to carry World War II with him for nearly half a century.
USS LST-4, World War II
Web page by Linda Cunningham Fluharty.