Life after Pearl Harbor

By Debbie Teofilo
Special to the Sun

It seemed like a good idea at the time to join the Navy on the same day his brother did in 1941. Lake Isabella resident Bob Cunningham had just graduated from high school in Chowchilla, and he didn’t know what else to do with his life. His life took on new meaning that December 7 on a ship in Pearl Harbor.

Photo submitted by Honor Flight Kern County:
Bob Cunningham (pictured above) of Lake Isabella is the last known Pearl Harbor Survivor living in Kern County and recently returned from Washington D.C. with Honor Flight Kern County.

Cunningham was assigned to the USS Vestal that day, which was tied alongside the USS Arizona while repairs were being completed on the ship. After hearing and feeling loud blasts, he went up on deck to find that seamen and the ship’s skipper had been blown into the water. The USS Arizona was sinking and the Vestal was hit, so an executive officer told everyone to abandon ship.
As Cunningham approached the gangway to exit the ship, he encountered the USS Vestal’s skipper, covered in oil, who had swam back to the ship. The skipper shouted, “Where are you guys going? Get back on board! We’re getting underway.” Knowing the ship was badly damaged, the skipper steered it to the beach where it was grounded in shallow water instead of going down with the USS Arizona.

After Pearl Harbor, Cunningham was reassigned to minesweepers based out of San Pedro. They patrolled the Southern California coastline and searched the Channel Islands area as a precaution before ship convoys came through, but mines were never found. He remembers cooking temporarily for 35 men, and was able to serve deer meat from hunts on the Channel Islands. From that experience, he learned that he loved to cook.

After four years in the Navy, he went to Bible College on the G.I. Bill and became a pastor in the Foursquare Church for the next 20 years. He had not been a Christian before he entered the service, but after his experiences and an introduction to the church by his first wife, he found it to be his calling.

Cunningham married a young woman shortly before he left the Navy, knowing immediately that she was going to be his wife just minutes after meeting her. They were married over 51 years before her passing. He married his second wife at the KRV Senior Center, where they both worked. After she passed away, he moved to Visalia for 10 years with his third wife until she suffered a major stroke. He moved back to the KRV in January of this year.

Cunningham said with all these tragedies in his life, he’s learned to take things in stride and to serve the Lord. “Things happen in life,” he said, “and if you don’t learn to take them, they can take you.”

Late last month, a VFW member learned that Cunningham was a Pearl Harbor survivor and urged him to go on a Kern County Honor Flight that following week. Friends and organizers scrambled to get the paperwork done in time so he could join that group.

Cunningham loved the Honor Flight experience and said he was treated like a celebrity in Washington, D.C., airports, and back home. He smiled while saying, “You have to be an old man to get this much attention!”

Photo submitted by Honor Flight Kern County:
Pictured in front of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool from his recent visit to Washington D.C. with Kern County Honor Flight, Bob Cunningham said he loved the experience and was treated like a celebrity during the trip.

His notoriety in being “found out” as the last Pearl Harbor Survivor living in Kern County has caused him to be interviewed for newspaper articles, a book, and spots on Channel 17 news. Enduring this and the Honor Flight celebrity has been difficult for a man of his humble nature. He prefers a simple life of playing bingo and eating lunch daily at the Lake Isabella Senior Center. He’s partial to going out for banana splits for dessert after afternoon rests at home.

At age 94, Cunningham said he loves life, and he will enjoy it until his last day. His positive attitude led him to buy a house when he returned to the KRV this year, rather than renting one. And as do most Californians, he still enjoys driving, and hopes he can continue to do so. But even if someday that activity must end, Bob Cunningham’s motto is “Life goes on, no matter what!”