WWII sailor posthumously awarded Purple Heart after divers confirm boat sunk by Nazi torpedo
By JOSHUA KARSTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 29, 2019
A sailor killed aboard the last U.S. warship to be sunk off the East Coast in World War II has been awarded the Purple Heart medal 74 years after he died.
Seaman 1st Class James Cunningham, of Jackson, Tenn., was one of the sailors the Navy said were stationed aboard the USS Eagle off the coast of Maine on April 23, 1945, when an explosion ripped its hull in half. On Saturday, Navy personnel chief Vice Adm. Jeff Hughes awarded the Purple Heart medal to Cunningham’s 85-year-old sister, Clara Cunningham Osborne, at an event in Millington, Tenn.
Capt. Al Ross, commanding officer of Naval Support Activity Mid-South, presented Osborne with a Gold Star Families pin.
“It was such an honor to host the Cunningham family here in Millington and provide the family these long overdue awards and recognition of the sacrifices their sailor and family have made since 1945,” Ross said.
A boiler explosion was originally thought to have sunk the USS Eagle, even though some of the 13 survivors of the blast said they had seen a submarine conning tower near the boat at the time of the sinking.
Fifty-six years later, in 2001, the sinking was reclassified as a combat loss after Paul Lawton, a lawyer, naval historian and diver, and Bernard Cavalacante, a senior archivist at the Naval Historical Center, found evidence to convince the Navy that the German submarine U-853 had sunk the boat.
That qualified the ship’s dead and survivors for the Purple Heart, which is awarded to servicemembers killed or wounded by hostile fire.
The medal was awarded in June 2001 to three of the survivors and the next of kin of some of the sailors who died, a Navy statement said.
It was not immediately clear why there was an 18-year delay in presenting Cunningham’s family with the medal.
For years, the ship’s final resting place was unknown, but last summer a team of eight civilian divers with the Nomad Exploration Team discovered the wreck 300 feet down, about 5 miles off Maine’s Cape Elizabeth. The team found the engine rooms intact, supporting Lawton’s and Cavalcante’s conclusions.
The ship’s senior surviving officer Lt. j.g. John Scagnelli had provided an account of the sinking to Cunningham’s family in an August 1945 letter, in which he said the explosion split the ship in half as the crew was eating lunch, knocking many of the crewmembers unconscious and sinking the boat within minutes. Cunningham was resting in his compartment at the time and was thought to have died “without struggle or pain,” Scagnelli’s letter said.
“I couldn’t be prouder that we were able to honor Seaman 1st Class James Cunningham after all these years,” said Ross, the Naval Support Activity Mid-South commander.
Cunningham’s life had a purpose, Osborne told the audience at the ceremony, “and all you here today are part of that purpose.”
Cunningham was one of only two black sailors on the Eagle, Osborne said in an interview aired on NPR Sunday, and “both of them went down with the ship.”
He wasn’t supposed to be on the ship that day, she said, but he took the place of another sailor who had to attend a funeral.
“So in essence, he gave his life for somebody else,” Osborne said. “And I guess all of us, if we had an opportunity, can ask ourselves the question and answer: Would you be willing to give your life for a friend?”
After 74 years, Seaman 1st Class James Cunningham of Jackson, Tennessee, received the Purple Heart he earned as he went down with his ship in the closing weeks of World War II. His sister, Clara Cunningham Osborne, accepted the decoration on his behalf, July 27, 2019, in Millington, Tenn.