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Remains of Illinois soldier, missing since 1969, coming home

By Len Wells | Evansville Courier & Press, Ind. (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 9, 2016

ALBION, Ill. — The remains of an airman listed as "missing in action" during the Vietnam War have been recovered.

Officials with the U.S. Department of Defense confirmed the remains of Pfc. Kenneth Leroy Cunningham of Ellery, Illinois.

He had been missing since Oct. 3, 1969. He was 21 at the time.

Cunningham's remains will be flown back to the United States later this month, arriving at the airport in Louisville, Kentucky on Jan 19. His remains will be escorted back to Albion, Illinois for funeral services and burial at the Little Prairie Christian Church on Jan. 21.

On Oct. 3, 1969, First Lt. Paul L. Graffe, a pilot, and Cunningham departed from Phu Hiep, South Vietnam during the early evening for a nighttime surveillance mission of targets located in the tri-border area of Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam.

The aircraft, an OV1C Mohawk plane, was equipped with surveillance equipment, but was not armed. The aircraft failed to return at its scheduled time. Two days later, search-and-rescue aircraft located the wreckage of an aircraft atop a 7,000-foot peak in a mountain range north of the city of Kontum. The wreckage was positively identified as that of Graffe and Cunningham's aircraft. Efforts were made to insert a ground team at the site on Oct. 5 and Oct. 6, but bad weather prevented the mission.

A later effort was scrubbed for fear that enemy troops had a set a trap at the crash site.

Dave Cunningham of Fairfield, Illinois was 12 when his brother's plane went missing.

"The news is sort of bittersweet," Dave said. "We now know that he died at the crash site and not in a concentration camp. What we still don't know is if his plane was shot down. It was very foggy and rainy the night his plane disappeared. They may have just flown into the side of the mountain. What we know now closes a chapter, but not the book."

"I still remember the last thing that Kenneth asked me to do at the airport before he left for Vietnam," Dave said. "He asked me to take care of mom and dad."

Cunningham's father, Arthur Neal Cunningham died in 1988. His mother, Margaret Cunningham, died in April of last year at the age of 96.

"Mom never gave up hope," Dave said. "Growing up, we lived in a very small house and slept in the same bed. We had a lot of nighttime talks. He was nine years older than me, so I remember him taking me places when he was home on leave. He took me places like a big brother would – places I normally wouldn't have been able to go."

Survivors include two brothers, Dave Cunningham of Fairfield and Arthur Cunningham, Jr. of Jasonville, Indiana, and a sister, Ruth Barnett of Samsville, Illinois.

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©2016 the Evansville Courier & Press (Evansville, Ind.)

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Kenneth Leroy Cunningham
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