The brother of a pillar of the Morristown community has received a Purple Heart 74 years after his ship went down in World War II.
Clara Osborne, former director of Central Services, traveled to Naval Support Activity Mid-South in Millington, Tennessee this weekend to receive the Purple Heart for her brother, Seaman 1st Class James Cunningham, of Jackson, Tennessee, who died on his ship just weeks before Germany surrendered in World War II.
Osborne was presented her brother’s Purple Heart Saturday at the naval base in Millington, which is located in West Tennessee.
During the ceremony, Rear Adm. Jeff Hughes, commander of Navy Personnel Command, posthumously presented the award.
Osborne accepted the decoration on his behalf.
Additionally, Capt. Alonza Ross, commanding officer of Naval Support Activity Mid-South, presented Osborne with the Navy Gold Star Families pin. Navy Operational Support Center Memphis hosted the ceremony.
Cunningham was aboard the USS Eagle (PE-56) when it was hit by a German torpedo in April of 1945.
“It was such an honor to host the Cunningham family here in Millington and provide the family these long overdue awards and recognition of the sacrifices their Sailor and family have made since 1945,” Ross said, who presented Osbourne with the Gold Star Families pin. “It was truly a team effort across our installation to make this important event happen, and I couldn’t be prouder that we were able to honor Seaman 1st Class James Cunningham after all these years.”
While the ship’s sinking was originally thought to be a mechanical issue, eight civilian divers known as the Nomad Exploration Team, were able to prove what really happened off the coast of Maine back in 1945.
The USS Eagle was originally believed to have been sunk due to a boiler explosion, but upon later investigation of testimonies and exanimation of the intact boilers, the U.S. Navy identified the tragedy as a combat loss.
The German submarine U-853 torpedoed the USS Eagle. Of the 67 crew stationed aboard, only 13 members survived.
The Naval Historical Center determined the Eagle was attacked, which resulted in the deceased members of the crew receiving the Purple Heart posthumously.
The senior surviving officer, Lt. j.g. John Scagnelli, provided his tragic testimony to Cunningham’s family in a letter written Aug. 2, 1945.
Scagnelli recounted the events that led up to the ship’s sinking and the fate of many crewmembers during the attack on the USS Eagle. On the morning of the attack, the USS Eagle was carrying out operational exercises, and just as the crew were eating noon-chow, a large explosion devastated the ship.
The explosion split the ship in half and rendered many unconscious. The ship sank within minutes, and most of the crew went down with it.
Cunningham was in his compartment resting during the disaster and was determined to have been unconscious, dying in a short time without struggle or pain according to the letter.
“I appreciated you taking the time for being here,” Osborne said. “I just can’t tell you enough what a family we are. One thing about the Cunningham family is they are strong. They are loyal. They are also cantankerous in a nice sort of way. They come from all across the U.S. to be here. James Oliver had a purpose, and all you here today are part of that purpose.”
On Aug. 14, there will be a local ceremony at 9 a.m. in the City Center recognizing Cunningam’s achievement of being awarded the Purple Heart.
U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Johnson City, will be on hand to honor Cunningham at the event.