The morning of Dec. 7, 1941, started like any other Sunday at Hawaii's Pearl Harbor Naval Base for 18-year-old Bob Cunningham.

A sailor aboard the USS Vestal, a repair ship moored alongside the battleship Arizona, Cunningham downed a Navy breakfast before heading to the recreation room to relax, play some cards and chat with his shipmates.

It was the last routine activity he would ever experience aboard the Vestal.

Seventy-six years later, Cunningham, now 94 and living in Lake Isabella, still remembers another sailor interrupting to say there appeared to be some sort of practice bombing run happening at nearby Hickam Field.

The sailors scrambled up to the top deck to watch.

As they stood riveted, a dive-bomber made a direct hit on an American plane resting on the tarmac. It exploded in flames.

"Someone said, 'This is for real,'" Cunningham recalled.

And it was. All too real. And the world would never be the same.

The men were called to general quarters — battle stations. And all hell broke loose as Japanese Zeros and other enemy aircraft started taking apart America's Pacific fleet anchored at the Hawaiian port.

The Vestal wasn't built for battle, but it had two 3-inch, 50-caliber guns mounted fore and aft.

"I was assigned to the one on the back," Cunningham said.

The teen sailor, who was born in Los Angeles but came of age in California's interior, watched as the ship's skipper was thrown into the oily water when a massive explosion shook the Arizona. 

Cmdr. Cassin Young would later be awarded the Medal of Honor for swimming back to the ship, reversing an abandon-ship order, and steaming to a location where he was able to sink the ship in 20 feet of water, thereby saving it from total destruction. It would later rejoin the war effort.

The sky was soon black with smoke. The attack could easily have been the precursor to a ground invasion, but no one knew for sure. The young sailor was operating on pure adrenaline.

But his memories of that long-ago day are jumbled, uneven, and muted by the mist of time.

"I'm surprised at myself," he said. "I didn't get fearful about what was going on. Why wasn't I afraid?"

Cunningham was struck in the back during the one-sided battle, possibly by hot shrapnel. But when he went to sick bay, he saw men with limbs missing, part of a man's head gone.

He backed out of the room.

"I certainly didn't need the attention," he said. And he refused to divert medical care away from anyone who needed it more.

Before the attack, international tensions between the United States and Japan had been running high, so when Cunningham and his shipmates saw the rising sun insignia on the sides of the fighters and torpedo planes flying overhead, they must have realized the Asian nation had launched a strike on America's Pacific fleet.

The United States was about to join the Allied effort in World War II, an epic struggle against Nazi fascism and Japanese military expansionism. The sleeping giant had indeed been awakened.

"Guys like Mr. Cunningham have lived part of our history," said Dick Taylor, a Marine veteran and director of the Kern County Veteran Services Department. "He was a 17-, 18-, 19-year-old kid doing his thing, the courage part of the war effort.

"He's a snapshot in time," Taylor said.

And, as probably the last surviving veteran of Pearl Harbor in Kern County, he offers a living, breathing connection to that critical moment in the nation's history.

But Pearl Harbor doesn't define Cunningham. He served four years in the Navy Reserves, although he was never deployed overseas again. He went on to marry and helped raise three children.

After more than 51 years of marriage, he lost his wife, Gertrude, in 1993. His second wife, Edna, succumbed to cancer after nearly 10 years of wedded bliss. And while his third wife, Daisy, is still living, she suffered a stroke and is in a 24-hour care facility in Tulare County.

He has been a mailman, a church minister, a city council member and even served one year as the mayor of Bell Gardens in Southern California.

"I do well for my age," he said. "I still drive and go where and when I want."

And he's happy.

"I like people," he said. "I like being around people."

He's been "saved" for 72 years. And he says he's been fortunate to have known the women in his life. "All good Christian women," he said.

He drives to Visalia occasionally to attend church and visit Daisy. 

"I enjoy life," he said.

Thursday night Cunningham will serve his community again, this time as grand marshall of the Bakersfield Christmas Parade.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Cunningham. And many more.

(1) comment

rtguy53

It’s amazing to me to think that Mr. Cunningham may be the last living WWII veteran from Kern County. My own father, Army Captain Harold E. Bell, a veteran of the war stationed in the Philippines, would have turned 100 years old this past September. An Illinois native, he returned from the war to raise a family in first Tulare, then Kern County. In 1953, when I came along, there must have been thousands of WWII veterans in Kern County. How time does fly, eh Mr. Mayer?

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