Dec. 7, 2016 will mark the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which thrust America into World War II. Morgantown High School’s marching band has been selected to represent West Virginia during a commemoration next year in Hawaii to honor that milestone.
One of the few remaining survivors of the attack came to the Mountain State from Texas to share his first-hand account of that fateful day with the band members and take part in Veterans Day ceremonies.
Seaman 1st Class Richard Cunningham, 94, was invited to speak at Morgantown High School’s auditorium because he’s one of the last witnesses to one of the most infamous days in American history.
He was serving aboard the USS West Virginia on Dec. 7, 1941, as the battleship was docked in Pearl Harbor. Early that morning, he and two other sailors were assigned to pick up some officers from shore in a small, wooden motorboat. They were halfway through their 10-minute journey when they heard an enormous explosion.
“The three of us looked back and we saw this Japanese plane coming down and peeling off and coming in,” Cunningham said. “We looked and saw the two rising suns and the big loud bomb and I thought, ‘Boy, this is it. This is war.’ ”
Cunningham told the rapt audience about how he and his shipmates dodged enemy fire in that flimsy boat to rescue sailors from the burning water of the harbor. He told them how the explosion from a damaged Japanese plane was so close that it singed the hair on his arms. And he told them how he and others fought the flames from the burning American naval fleet for days after the attack.
But his message in the end was simple.
“Be prepared,” Cunningham said. “The nation can get lackadaisical in their attitude toward living, you know. And you get so involved with the things that you have to do that you forget about that the freedom isn’t free.”
Learning About History
Cunningham participated in many of the Veterans Day ceremonies in and around Morgantown during the week of Nov. 8. But he also spent time at Morgantown High School talking to students about the battleship he served on, the USS West Virginia, and the attack on Pearl Harbor.
It especially meant a lot to the MHS marching band. They’ve been chosen to represent the Mountain State in Hawaii next year during the 75th anniversary commemoration of the attack.
Band director Keith Reed said that to prepare for the trip, the students are learning a lot about the USS West Virginia and the sailors who died during the battle. He said having Cunningham meet the students in person drove those lessons home.
“The kids really liked him,” Reed said. “They listened, they were quiet today — I mean the whole student body, not just the band kids — and I think it will really bring it more alive to them and make it significant when we get to go over there.”
It’s a Long Way To Hawaii
Reed said the school plans to send about 250 band members to Pearl Harbor next year. Freshman trumpet player Arden Minor will be one of them.
“I know we’re good, but I don’t think we’re the best in the state,” she said. “But I do think we are very well qualified to represent the whole entire state of West Virginia and I am really excited about that.”
Arden said she is looking forward to paying homage to all those who served aboard the USS West Virginia.
Reed said he hopes to lay some wreaths on the dock near where the battleship was moored when it was attacked. He also has a special song in mind.
“We really want to play ‘My Home Among the Hills.’ And I don’t say that to, you know, to invoke emotion, but it is to think that,” he said.
Reed said it’s going to take quite an effort to get the band and their instruments to Hawaii, but they’ve received a lot of community support for the trip.
Cunningham said he was more than happy to come to Morgantown. He lives in Texas, but of both his parents were West Virginia natives. Cunningham said he’s thrilled that so many students from Morgantown High will get to experience Hawaii.
“I’d love to see ’em out there and bare-footed and walking up and down Waikiki beach in their bare feet,” he said. “It would just, that would just tickle me, really, it would make me happy.”
Cunningham wrapped up his visit as a Veterans Day parade guest of honor, riding in a silver convertible and leading the MHS Marching Band down High Street in Morgantown.