Clara Osborne, a pillar of the Morristown community, was honored, along with her late brother, Seaman 1st Class James Cunningham, at the City Center Wednesday morning, almost 74 years after his ship went down in the Atlantic Ocean during World War II.
Cunningham received a posthumous Purple Heart from the U.S. Navy two weeks ago at the naval base in Millington, Tennessee, in West Tennessee.
“I’m speechless, really,” Osborne said after the event. “I had no idea who would be here. But seeing my church family, my community family, the mayor, the councilmen here, it’s beyond any words I can say.”
U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Johnson City and a U.S. Army veteran, was on hand to honor Osborne’s brother, who died aboard the U.S.S. Eagle 56 after it was torpedoed by a German U-Boat off the coast of Maine. The sinking happened just two weeks before Germany surrendered.
Osborne was 11 years old when the sinking occurred in 1945.
Roe said he served the country and was one that got to come home. But, he said, for some there are other consequences.
“In any war, the loss of life is tragic,” Roe said. “When the remains don’t come home, it’s even more tragic.”
The remains of the U.S.S. Eagle were only recently discovered off the coast of Maine. Before the discovery, the U.S. Navy had listed it as an accident, but after divers went to look at the ship underwater, they found it had been sunk by the German U-Boat.
In September, the Smithsonian Channel will be airing a special documentary called “The Hunt for Eagle 56” that will show how the divers searched and found the wreckage.
Osborne spoke about her brother and how he had constantly told the family that once he graduated high school, he was going into the Navy. A man of his word, Cunningham graduated and within weeks was on his way to Navy boot camp.
She said as a single man, he sent money back to their parents to buy himself a home. Living in the country in Jackson, Tennessee at the time, she said her parents bought the home and on one furlough, he came back home to walk through his house.
She said she remembered him singing during that visit.
“He sang and he whistled all the time,” Osbone said. “And he’d cut a rug, as we called it.”
She thanked those who helped make it possible that Cunningham received the Purple Heart. Those thanks included R. Jack Fishman, president of Lakeway Publishers R. Mike Fishman, editor and publisher of the Citizen Tribune, Roe and people in Roe’s office, including Terry Harris, the Veterans History Project coordinator and Cheryl Bennett, case worker.
The event was scheduled for a time when Roe was in town. Almost 50 people gathered in the rotunda of the City Center and applauded as Osborne stood to receive recognition for her brother’s service.
As the event concluded, all those in attendance made a circle and had an impromptu prayer.
Danny Underwood, a retired Navy veteran from Morristown, presented Osborne with a blue and gold U.S. Navy ballcap.
Underwood said he had heard about the event from the newspaper and wanted a way to honor Cunningham.
“He was Navy,” he said. “He was one of us.”
Osborne said she has visited 49 states. But, there is one place she won’t go. She won’t go to the one state where her brother now lays in rest.
“I don’t think I could bear it,” she said.