Let me end tonight with the story of Robert Emmett Cunningham.
He was part of what Tom Brokaw christened “The Greatest Generation.”
He dropped out of his first year of college to join the U.S. Navy. He wanted to be a Naval aviator, got promised by the recruiter he could pull it off once he enlisted. Instead, they sent him to electronics school, then shipped him off to New Caledonia in the South Pacific.
There he was issued a suitcase-sized piece of gear that allowed him to communicate with ships at sea so he could direct gunfire on enemy-held islands.
From there he was sent to Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, one of the really bad spots in the war.
He was lucky.
“The thing was changing all time,” he told me after dinner a few months back. “We landed without opposition. We made a regular landing in boats and walked in the water and carried rifles, went up the beach and all, but there was no resistance. The Japanese had moved from there to further south.”
But it wasn’t that safe. There were, he admitted to me later, “some minor Japanese fragments (who) were shooting at us.”
“Were you ever scared?” I asked him.
“No,” my father-in-law said without a beat.
“I had a hell of a time!”
But as August 1945 approached, it didn’t look like his luck would hold. He and his buddies were getting word that the Americans were about to invade the home islands of Japan itself, an operation expected to cost a million casualties.
“When they started distributing that heavy clothing,” he said. “That’s when you knew you were heading to Japan.”
“We made practice landings and we were issued winter clothing in 90-degree heat. We didn’t’ have to wear it, we were issued it.”
And then, all of a sudden, they got the news that Japan had, as he put it, thrown in the towel.”
So it turns out that Bob Cunningham – Kathleen’s father – was one of those who were saved by President Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb.
What would an invasion been like like?
I asked him that, knowing how ferociously the Japanese had defended those many islands in the Pacific. He let me know exactly what had been on his mind all the years since.
He said it “would have been horrible.”
“I think that would’ve been horrible,” he said again.
That was almost 70 years ago.
Yesterday, not far from where he and Mary Lou raised five kids in Northern California - including my incredible wife, Bob Cunningham died.
We and our children all visited him last weekend. He was in good spirits. Our kids were wonderful with him - and he with them, cracking jokes right to the end.
Robert Emmett Cunningham - of Los Altos California, via New Caledonia and Leyte Gulf - on his way to Arlington Cemetery.
Thank you for your service.