James H. Cunningham, 85, financial consultant

September 01, 2004|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

James Hugh Cunningham, a retired financial consultant who during World War II flew a plane that sank an enemy destroyer, died of congestive heart failure Thursday at his Woodbrook home. He was 85.

Born in Brookline, Mass., and raised in nearby Cohasset, he earned a bachelor's degree in political science at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

After twice failing an eye exam that prevented him from enlisting in the Navy as an aviator, Mr. Cunningham became a tower safety officer at LaGuardia Airport in New York and at airports in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, Pa.

Against his parents' wishes, he took private flying lessons and received a civilian pilot's license in 1941. After working as a private pilot, he enlisted in the Navy successfully and was assigned to flight school in Pensacola, Fla.

"He did not tell the Navy about his license because he feared he would be kept in the states as an instructor," said his wife of 17 years, Melissa Dunham McCarty.

Assigned to the Pacific, he flew Hellcats and Corsair-type fighter planes from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. He later flew bombing missions over Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Mr. Cunningham recently recalled in an oral history that he was sitting in the cockpit of his Hellcat fighter on the Hornet's flight deck when a Japanese kamikaze pilot's plane was shot down 100 yards away. He said he could feel the intense heat of the burning plane as it passed over.

In December 1944, he took off 140 miles offshore from Tokyo for an attack on the Japanese mainland in which he was credited with destroying several planes on the ground.

In a historic mission over the East China Sea on April 7, 1945, the Navy ensign was in the first wave of fighters dispatched to sink the Yamato, the Japanese battleship accompanied by a cruiser and eight destroyers. A 500-pound bomb that he carried sank the destroyer Asahimo.

His decorations included the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal and two Gold Stars.

In his Silver Star citation signed by then-Navy Secretary James Forrestal, Mr. Cunningham was commended for "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity as pilot of a fighter plane ... participating in an attack on a large Japanese task force." It said that "Ensign Cunningham dived through intense enemy aircraft fire to score a direct bomb hit on a hostile destroyer."

After the war, he moved to Cooperstown, N.Y., joined Charles Scribner Co., a New York-based publisher, and sold textbooks to schools. He later lived in Northern Virginia while working as a lobbyist for the Bituminous Coal Institute, and in Rochester, N.Y., while he was an executive assistant to the chairman of Eastman Kodak.

In 1964, he moved to Baltimore and became a financial consultant to T. Rowe Price, founder of the Baltimore financial firm. He was also worked at VanSant Dugdale & Co. in advertising and promotions for local banks before retiring about 20 years ago.

A volunteer for the Constellation restoration committee, he was a former president of the Baltimore Chamber Opera Company and belonged to the Sons of the American Revolution of Maryland and the St. George's Society.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at St. David's Episcopal Church, 4700 Roland Ave., where he was a communicant.

Survivors, in addition to his wife, include a son, James H. Cunningham Jr. of Alameda, Calif.; two daughters, Pamela A. Cunningham of Decatur, Ga., and Susan L. Cunningham of Hillsborough, Calif.; a stepson, H. Downman McCarty, and a stepdaughter, Melissa McCarty Warlow, both of Baltimore; a brother, Paul G. Cunningham of Lexington, Mass.; two sisters, Nancy C. Pillet of Dinard, France, and Barbara C. Corey of Petersham, Mass.; and four grandchildren. His marriage to Anne Cunningham ended in divorce.

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