Rear Admiral Winfield Scott Cunningham

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Winfield Scott Cunningham

Birthplace: Rockbridge, Richland, Wisconsin, United States
Death: March 03, 1986 (86)
Memphis, Shelby, Tennessee, United States
Place of Burial: Memphis, Shelby, Tennessee, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Frederick Michael Cunningham and Ruth Ellen Cunningham

Managed by: Patricia Ann Clark
Last Updated:

About Rear Admiral Winfield Scott Cunningham

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Winfield Scott Cunningham

Captain Winfield S. Cunningham, USN

Born February 16, 1900 Rockbridge, Richland County, Wisconsin

Died March 3, 1986 (aged 86) Memphis, Tennessee

Allegiance United States of America

Service/branch United States Navy

Years of service

{USNA 1916–1919} 1919–1950

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 One Victory Medal
  • American Defense Service Medal
  • Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal
  • World War Two 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 a pilot qualified in both fighters and flying boats.

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 James 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 CDR Cunningham as POW aboard the Japanese transport Nitta Maru, at Yokohama, Japan, January 1942.

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 onboard, 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. [edit] 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 (AV-4). 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.

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Rear Admiral Winfield Scott Cunningham's Timeline

February 16, 1900
Rockbridge, Richland, Wisconsin, United States
March 3, 1986
Age 86
Memphis, Shelby, Tennessee, United States
Memphis National Cemetery, Memphis, Shelby, Tennessee, United States