ENSIGN JAMES J. CUNNINGHAM was born in New Jersey about 1916 to Hugh and Elizabeth Cunningham. He grew up in Camden, in a row house at 754 Line Street, near the corner of Line Street and Newton Avenue. Of the six Cunningham children, he was the only son. Hugh Cunningham followed the sea as a profession, in 1930 he listed his occupation as Marine Engineer. James Cunningham was a 1934 graduate of Camden Catholic High School in Camden NJ, and from LaSalle University in 1938. He had wed prior to the war, and with his wife Dorothy, had one son, Thomas Cunningham, early in 1942.
James J. Cunningham entered the United States Navy on September 18, 1942, and was commissioned as an ensign. After training at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and was then stationed the Naval base in Boston MA. He also saw duty at the Naval Armed Guard Center at Brooklyn NY. He served was an officer on the naval Armed Guard stationed on merchant vessels crossing the Atlantic. The Armed Guard were not guards, as such. They were United States Navy gun crews consisting of gunners, coxswains and boatswains, radiomen, signalmen, an occasional pharmacist, and toward the end of the war a few radarmen serving at sea on merchant ships. The Merchant Marine ran the ships and the Armed Guard we provided gunnery protection and communications services. Our crews were small, our hearts were large. The Merchant Marine crew took the same risks and many of them had been rejected by the military services or were requested to stay in the Merchant Marine where they were badly needed. The Merchant Marine occasionally served as loaders or ammunition handlers but very seldom manned a gun.
James Cunningham received a brief liberty during the second week of April, 1943, when his wife was able to visit him in New York on April 10th and 11th. On April 12, 1943, Ensign Cunningham sailed once again, aboard the Liberty Ship SS ROBERT GRAY, operated by the the Army Transportation Service. The SS ROBERT GRAY had been built at Portland Oregon by the Oregon Ship Building Corporation. One of the first Liberty Ships, her keel was laid down on May 31, 1941. The SS ROBERT GRAY was named for Captain Robert Gray (1755-1806), who as captain of the "Columbia" was the first American to circumnavigate the globe. He was the discoverer of the Columbia River in 1792, and Gray's Harbor WA.
Ensign James J. Cunningham was killed when the SS ROBERT GRAY was was torpedoed and sunk near Greenland en route from New York to Loch Ewe, Scotland, as part of Convoy HX-234, on April 23, 1943 by U-108 under the command of Korvettenkapitän Ralf-Reimar Wolfram. The ROBERT GRAY carried a cargo of munitions. She had fallen behind the rest of the convoy when she was torpedoed. Convoy HX-234 consisted of 42 ships, and was attacked by a German submarine wolfpack of 21 U-Boats. Allied naval escorts fought the Germans to a draw, as two U-boats were lost as opposed to tow merchant ships, the ROBERT GRAY being one of them.
The crew of 39 and all 23 of the Armed Guard were lost. Officially speaking, James Cunningham was reported missing in action on April 28, 1943, and declared dead on April 29, 1944. He is memorialized on the Tablets of the Missing at East Coast Memorial, New York City NY. James Cunningham was survived by his wife and son, parents, and sisters Elizabeth, Florence, Anna May, Naomi, and Joan Cunningham, all of 754 Line Street, Camden NJ.
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