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World War II Veteran Awarded Posthumous Purple Heart

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

In April of 1945, just as World War II was coming to an end, an American ship called the USS Eagle PE-56 sank off the coast of Maine. Navy Seaman First Class James Cunningham died along with most of his crew. At the time, it was believed that the ship sank due to a boiler explosion, but an investigation later revealed that it was due to a torpedo from a German submarine. Now, almost three-quarters of a century later, the U.S. Navy is honoring Cunningham with a Purple Heart. His younger sister, Clara Cunningham Osborne, was presented with the medal during a ceremony in Millington, Tenn., this weekend, and she joins us now. Welcome, Mrs. Osborne. And thank you so much for talking with us.

CLARA CUNNINGHAM OSBORNE: Thank you so much for having me.

MCCAMMON: And full disclosure, I should say I learned of this story through my friend who, of course, is your granddaughter.

OSBORNE: Yes.

MCCAMMON: Well, Mrs. Osborne, you were just a young girl when your brother's ship sank during World War II. What do you remember about your brother, James Cunningham?

OSBORNE: OK. I was 11 years old at the time. I remember that James was such a cut-up. We call him the family character. He would go through the house when he was younger singing. Then he would do a dance, a little jig, as we called it. So he was a cut-up.

MCCAMMON: Do you remember when he went off to war?

OSBORNE: Yes. From the time I was 6 years old, he said, when I finish Denmark High School, I will join the Navy. And that's exactly what he did.

MCCAMMON: It's been a very long time since this happened, and your brother is just finally receiving this honor, Right? What does it mean to you?

OSBORNE: It means everything to me, but it means more because of the young people in the family who are coming on behind me. They were here - 40 of my nieces, nephews, closest kin. And they are just - if I can use the word wow.

MCCAMMON: This must have been at least a somewhat integrated crew. And I wonder about how unusual that might have been during World War II. There was still so much discrimination against African Americans.

OSBORNE: OK. There were only two African Americans on that year - my brother, and - how's this for irony? - my mother's neighbor had a brother on that ship, and he was African American. And those were the only two, and both of them went down with the ship.

MCCAMMON: If your brother were here today to be able to see this, what do you think he would think?

OSBORNE: Well, he would laugh himself silly, first of all, because he was a character. And he never - it seems to me, now that I think of it, he always thought more of other people than he did of himself. And we learned today that he was not even supposed to be on the ship, that there was a death in the family of one of the sailors, and he was supposed to be on duty. So he took the place of the sailor who had a death in the family. So in essence, he gave his life for somebody else. And I guess all of us, if we had an opportunity, can ask ourselves the question and answer - would you be willing to give your life for a friend?

MCCAMMON: I've been talking with Clara Osborne. Her brother, Navy Seaman First Class James Cunningham, has received a posthumous Purple Heart for his service in World War II. Thank you so much.

OSBORNE: Thank you. And I appreciate talking with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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