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Winfield Scott Cunningham

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Title: Winfield Scott Cunningham  
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Subject: Wake Island
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Winfield Scott Cunningham

Winfield Scott Cunningham
File:Cunningham WS.gif
Captain Winfield S. Cunningham, USN
Born (1900-02-16)February 16, 1900
Rockbridge, Richland County, Wisconsin
Died March 3, 1986(1986-03-03) (aged 86)
Memphis, Tennessee
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch Template:Country data United States Navy
Years of service 1919–1950, USNA 1916-1919
Rank Rear Admiral
Commands held Wake Island
Battles/wars World War II
*Battle of Wake Island
Awards Navy Cross
Bronze Star
Prisoner of War Medal
Navy Expeditionary Medal
World War I Victory Medal
American Defense Service Medal
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal
World War II Victory Medal

Winfield Scott Cunningham (February 16, 1900 – March 3, 1986) was the Officer in Charge, Naval Activities, Wake Island when the tiny island was attacked by the Japanese on December 8, 1941. Cunningham commanded the defense of the island against the massive Japanese attack. After 15 days, the island was surrendered to the Japanese. Cunningham was taken prisoner and held as a POW in Japan. He was awarded the Navy Cross for his leadership at Wake Island.


Winfield Cunningham was born on February 16, 1900 in Rockbridge, Wisconsin. He was the son of Frederick Michael and Ruth Ella (Moore) Cunningham. Cunningham attended high school at Camp Douglas. In 1916, at the age of 16 and after completing his junior year in high school, he was appointed to the United States Naval Academy. Because of World War I, his Class of 1920 was graduated early – on June 6, 1919. Cunningham was commissioned an ensign and his first assignment was on the naval transport USS Martha Washington, which brought troops home from France. He would then spend the next two years on ships off the coast of Turkey. In January 1922, aboard the USS Huron, he sailed for China where he would spend the next year and a half. Returning to the U.S., on May 3, 1923, he was promoted to lieutenant (jg), with his promotion backdated to June 7, 1922.

While serving in China, Cunningham applied to enter aviation training. Though turned down in this first request, he put in requests several times and was finally accepted in 1924. On February 14, 1925, he reported as a student naval aviator to Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. While in training he was promoted to lieutenant on June 7, 1925, and was designated a naval aviator on September 11, 1925, becoming an aviator qualified in both fighters and flying boats.

Wake Island

Main article: Battle of Wake Island

On November 28, 1941, Cunningham, by now a commander, reported for duty as Officer in Charge, All Naval Activities, Wake Island. His command briefing gave top priority to completing the naval air station, over any attention to improving the island's defenses.

On December 8, 1941, news of the attack on Pearl Harbor reached Wake Island at 07:00, less than 2-1/2 hours after the Japanese struck. Cunningham ordered all personnel to battle stations; at the same time Major James Devereux, commanding officer of the Wake Detachment of the 1st Marine Defense Battalion, ordered a "Call to Arms". Cunningham recalled the Philippine Clipper (Martin 130 flying boat) and set in motion plans for a scouting patrol. It was to take off at 13:00. However, a bombing attack by the Japanese began at 1157. The bombing continued for days. On December 11, Japanese warships approached the Island.

CDR Cunningham ordered the Marine commander, Major Devereux, to hold their fire until the ships were in easy range. The small U.S. force on the island repulsed the initial landing attempt, but they were in serious need of additional supplies and support – including gunsights, spare parts and fire-control radar – which Cunningham requested from the Commandant, 14th Naval District. But no reinforcements were to come.

Wake remained under attack by the Japanese. After 15 days, with Japanese marines finally swarming over the island, on December 23, 1941, CDR Cunningham finally gave the order for surrender. Cunningham, along with surviving personnel and contractors, were taken captive.

Prisoner of War

Cunningham and his fellow prisoners were taken aboard the Japanese transport Nitta Maru to Shanghai, China by way of Yokohama, Japan. Treatment was harsh – five POWs were executed on board, and some of the imprisoned contractors left on Wake were later executed. Twice during his captivity, Cunningham attempted to escape and was later recaptured by the Japanese. During his captivity, he lost over 70 pounds. On August 18, 1945, after 1330 days of confinement, the Japanese prison commander announced the end of the war.

On August 24, 1945, Cunningham left China aboard a U.S. Army aircraft. He finally arrived in the U.S. on September 4, 1945, the same day Wake Island was formally surrendered by the Japanese.

Return to the U.S.

On September 10, 1945, Cunningham underwent a complete physical examination at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. He was found fit to return to duty. On December 4, 1945, he received notice of his promotion to captain, effective June 20, 1942. In January 1946, he began a period of retraining, beginning with refresher aviation training at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida.

In May 1946, Captain Cunningham returned to sea duty as the commanding officer of the USS Curtiss. Cunningham's final duty was as Commanding Officer, Naval Technical Training Center, Memphis, Tennessee from June 23, 1947 until his retirement on June 30, 1950 at the rank of rear admiral.


After retirement, Rear Admiral Cunningham lived in Memphis, Tennessee. He wrote a book, Wake Island Command (1961), about the historic battle. He died on March 3, 1986 at age 86 and was buried in the Memphis National Cemetery.


  • Cunningham, Winfield S. (with Lydel Sims), Wake Island Command, Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1961. (ASIN B0006AX13C)
  • Sloan, Bill. Given Up for Dead: America's Heroic Stand at Wake Island. New York: Random House, 2004. Print.

See also


  • Cunningham, Gregory Robert. Winfield Scott Cunningham, in Navy History, February 27, 2003. Retrieved on 2006-06-30.
  • Cressman, Robert J. "Commander Winfield S. Cunningham", in A Magnificent Fight: Marines in the Battle for Wake Island, Marines in World War II Commemorative Series, History and Museum Division, United States Marine Corps. Retrieved on 2006-07-09.
  • Keene, R.R. "Wake Island: The Corps Raised Its Name to Honor and Fame", American Legion Magazine, 1942 – reprinted in Leatherneck.

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