Retired Navy Capt. Melville D. Cunningham fought three wars for his country. He commanded ships, flew fighter jets, trained Top Gun pilots and made the final-20 cut for the first team of astronauts.
Thirty-two years have passed since he completed his last assignment — commanding officer of the Naval Air Station in Atlanta. But like many old warriors, his recollection of combat remains clear, even as his body betrays him.
That keen memory motivates him for one last fight, this one against the same military system he served with such distinction. He is in good company, although it's disappearing fast.
Cunningham, 84, labors in the study of his home in New Port Richey, dashing off letters to anyone who might help 3,000 sailors — most now gone — receive recognition for their bravery during the final days of World War II. He has found an ally who once might have waved his hand and made this happen, but who now is also an aged retiree living out his final days in Florida.
"I believe this matter needs review once and for all,'' Melvin Laird wrote to the Secretary of the Navy in December, "and regret that it was not done while I was Secretary of Defense.''
Laird, now 87 and living in Fort Myers, served as secretary under President Richard Nixon from 1969-73. But more important to this particular subject, he also was an ensign assigned to the USS Maddox, one of nine destroyers sent on a daring raid into Tokyo Bay on July 22, 1945. The mission: ascertain whether the Japanese concealed suicide torpedo boats that could wreak havoc during a planned invasion. The destroyers sank at least one ship — and likely three — before escaping in mine-infested water without a casualty.
It was the first incursion by American ships into heavily mined Tokyo Bay and, as it turned out, the last surface engagement of the war. A few weeks later, an atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima. Three days after that, another bomb landed on Nagasaki. Japan surrendered on Aug. 15.
"The war was over,'' said Cunningham, who had been a fire control sailor aboard the Maddox, "and everybody forgot about what we had done.''
Some of the men who served in that destroyer group, DESRON61, have over several years collected information about the mission. They learned that after the surrender, U.S. military inspectors went in and found more than 500 Japanese torpedo boats concealed on the shores of Tokyo Bay. The men said their action deserved a Presidential Unit Citation, but the Navy denied the request because there is no evidence that the top commanders in 1945 had ever recommended the award.
When Cunningham read that in a March 19 letter from the president of the Navy's board of decorations and medals, he pounded out an angry response.
"Since the mission was carried out without the loss of a ship or loss of life,'' he wrote with more than a hint of sarcasm, "it apparently is not noteworthy.'' He said the "higher authority'' who would have recommended the citation would be Admiral William "Bull'' Halsey or Admiral Robert Carney, both long dead.
Cunningham objected to any suggestion that the Tokyo Bay mission didn't warrant a Presidential Unit Citation, which he earned during the Vietnam War when he was executive officer on the USS Midway aircraft carrier.
"The carrier's action pales compared to that of DESRON61,'' he wrote. "I speak from personal and professional knowledge having served in both.''
Laird, in his letter to Navy Secretary Raymond Mabus, said he believes Halsey's failure to recommend the commendation was deliberate because the destroyer squadron's commander, T.H. Hederman, had filed a complaint against Halsey after the admiral had ordered his fleet to sail in the Philippine Sea during a typhoon in December 1944. Almost 800 men died when three destroyers sank; 146 aircraft were lost.
"Following this typhoon disaster, which some of us rode through, Admiral Halsey, after formal hearings in Hawaii, was severely reprimanded for his orders,'' Laird wrote. "Our destroyer commander (Hederman) felt he was never forgiven for his complaint filed against the Third Fleet Commander.''
Hederman went on to become a rear admiral and earned the Navy Cross. He died in 1960.
After his military service, Cunningham worked as an officer for a private anti-terrorist training center. He retired completely in 1990 and moved to the Hunters Ridge subdivision in New Port Richey. He and Dorothy celebrated their 59th anniversary in June.
Their house is full of Navy memorabilia and Cunningham proudly wears his blue and white Navy T-shirts. He says he didn't make admiral "because I'm not the kind of guy who makes admiral. I usually say what's on my mind.''
That said, it should come as no surprise to learn why the captain decided to throw his weight behind the effort to honor the Tokyo Bay raiders:
"I might not be able to fight city hall,'' he said, "but I can pee on their front steps.''
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A personal note: When I interviewed Mel and Dorothy Cunningham at their home, they spoke proudly of their only son, Mel Cunningham Jr., a Davidson College graduate who became a captain in the Army and then a corporate executive. On July 24, two days after our interview, Mel Jr. died suddenly at his home in Gurnee, Ill., leaving a wife and two sons. He had seemed healthy. His parents believe he had an aneurysm. They returned home this week. We wish them peace and comfort. — Bill Stevens