Jimmy Cunningham has lived in Baldwyn his entire life. He graduated third in his class of 26 from Baldwyn High School in April 1944 at 17 years of age. At the time of his graduation, World War II was in progress and thousands of young men were being drafted. He had until November to decide if he wanted to be drafted or join one of the U.S. Armed Forces. In July, he decided to join the Navy.
Cunningham recalls the years before he entered the service. While he was still in high school, Japan made the decision to attack the U.S. fleet as it was berthed at Pearl Harbor. That attack rapidly escalated the war, and it would not be long before Cunningham found himself part of it. Japan’s attack, while meant to assert its force upon the U.S. and possibly weaken the American resolve, did just the opposite.
“Thousands of young men enlisted when they heard the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor,” Cunningham said. “The men’s morale and loyalty to the United States was at an all-time high.”
A friend of his decided he would enlist at the same time Cunningham did. They were sent to Jackson for their physicals. Cunningham passed his physical immediately. High blood sugar showed up in his friend’s blood test. He was told to go home, eat nothing, come back the next morning and he should pass the physical. He did go home but ate an entire watermelon that night and failed the physical the next morning. He was relieved that he was headed back home.
Cunningham was sent to boot camp in Williamsburg, Va. After an IQ test, he was assigned to the special skills school where he trained to be a radio operator. For five months, Cunningham trained in Bainbridge, Mass., learning Morse Code.
With ear phones on, Cunningham learned to translate 30 to 40 words per minute into Morse Code. All codes were in five letter groups. The government knew the Germans could hear the code but couldn’t decipher it.
Ultimately, though, Cunningham wasn’t sent to the European theater. He found himself headed westward. He found himself headed for battle in the Pacific.
“I was on the LSM 447,” Cunningham said. “LSM stood for Landing Ship Medium. I remember passing the prison Alcatraz while on the ship. Alcatraz seemed desolate and dreary. I was feeling blessed that I was not inside that prison.”
Cunningham talks about his time in the Navy, but he is also quick to recognize the service of others, especially fellow Baldwyn servicemen such as Jack Hamblin, Johnny Arnold and Van Stubbs, who were drafted and were right in the middle of the invasion. Billie Hopkins (see related story on page 38), a Baldwyn native was shot, covered up and left for dead twice in Italy but luckily soldiers came by checking each one and discovered he was alive both times. Infantry walked everywhere they went, so times were hard trekking though unfamiliar terrain.
Cunningham has made a list of Baldwyn residents who were killed or wounded during WWII. Frank Allen Caldwell’s plane was shot down over France. He was shot while coming down without a parachute. Charles Enoch was shot by a firing squad in Germany. Jack Hamblin’s ship was sunk by a mine at Omaha Beach in the invasion of Normandy. David Waters and Paul Kilpatrick were killed in Germany during a ground battle. Bernard Coggins’ plane was shot down, and he was shot in the leg but survived. Buford Nanney was left blind from injuries received in the war.
Back home, many of the young women in Baldwyn and other areas of the country joined the industrial work force or areas of the military. They were called WACS (Army) and WAVES (Navy). Many women worked in the defense factories. Two local sisters, Emily and Eugenia Mauldin, served their time doing secretarial duties.
Cunningham had other friends and acquaintances from the Baldwyn area who served in various areas of the military.
“I remember James Morgan, Thomas Gentry, James Magers, Tom Mauldin, Troy Ennis, Glen Farris, Raymond Hill and others,” Cunningham said. “Many of the boys were drafted, which didn’t give them much of a choice of which area of the military they wanted to serve.”
Billy Bludworth, a Baldwyn native, worked with the CIA and was stationed in Russia. He was a U2 pilot.
“Raymond Hill was stationed in Berlin, Germany where he was staying at a church,” Cunningham said. “One time Hill heard German soldiers coming and hid inside the church in a barrel.”
Cunningham said Hill wasn’t as lucky on another day when he was standing in front of the church and a lone German soldier came up behind him and put a bayonet through his back and hit his lung. Hill survived the attack after a long stay in a United States medical facility set up in Germany.
“I consider myself very fortunate to return home rather than being in the shoes of any of those people,” Cunningham said. “Thank God for those heroes who brought the enemy to their knees.”
The attack on Japan
After six months on the ship, Cunningham’s troop was headed for a remote island in the Pacific when they received the news that President Harry Truman had made the decision to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and another over Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945. As it turned out, that difficult decision proved to be the key event leading to Japan’s surrender.
Cunningham said President Truman made a huge decision with the atomic bomb, which caused a lot of deaths, but he had to make that decision quickly or it could have meant more American lives would have been lost.
“Without Truman’s forceful action, I would probably be dead,” Cunningham said. “If we had reached the island and stayed there as a remote radio base, Japanese soldiers would have most likely surrounded the island and killed all of us.”
While recalling Truman, Cunningham said in his opinion the two greatest presidents were Truman and Ronald Regan.
Longing for home
Back home in Baldwyn, Cunningham had a girlfriend, Geraldine Hamblin. Every day after Cunningham’s departure to serve in the U.S. Navy, they wrote letters to each other. For soldiers, there was no cost for postage. All they did was write “Free” on the corner and the U.S. Postal Service would deliver it.
Not so for Geraldine. She had to have each letter stamped with the correct postage.
They never missed a day until one day, Geraldine received a telegram from Cunningham. She knew something was different and was extremely apprehensive.
“I opened the telegram and read that Jimmy was getting to come home and the war was over,” Geraldine said. “It was a glorious day for me to receive such great news.”
“I truly enjoyed my time in the Navy,” Cunningham said. “But it wasn’t a good thing for someone who wanted to settle down and have a family.”
On December 31, 1946, Cunningham married Geraldine, his high school sweetheart. As of Dec. 31, 2015, the couple has been married 69 years. Both are kind, complimentary of each other and their pride and love for one another glows for all to see.
All who served are heroes
Most of the friends who served with Cunningham have passed away. He kept in touch with one of his shipmates, D.C. Ball, and even stopped to visit with him while on a church trip to North Carolina. Ball passed away about three years ago.
“As I look back, I see all the men and women who served the military in any way they could and believe they are all heroes. I am thankful for having the opportunity to serve my country,” Cunningham said. “My greatest blessing is my wife who has given 100 percent of her love and support to me from the time we met. God has blessed us with children and grandchildren. I want them to know that it was all the heroes who served in all the wars that has given America her freedom and made it a blessed place to live.”