Category Archives: Family Biographies/Histories

Letter from Udell Cunningham, November 2005 Part 7

About two weeks after I arrived on Attu they found a rubber raft on the shore. Naturally if was assumed that it had been used by Jap infiltrators from a submarine. Panic! They placed us new greenhorns about a hundred yards apart all along the beach. After about four hours, we were relieved and taken to a guard shack. They immediately told us to unload our weapons. We told them that we didn’t have loaded weapons. We were never given any ammo. We were so new we didn’t dare tell them — we were told to keep quiet and speak only when spoken to. They never found any Jap intruders. The group that was shipped out from Seattle were classified as replacements. They had assumed that there would be casualites in the invasion and they would need replacement workers. Well, we were surplus to the Seabees already there. When we arrived there were five battalions of Seabees. They were the 22nd, 23rd, 68th, 138th, and the 8th Special. They divided the appx. 200 replacements to the existing units. A battalion was 1000-1200 men. We lived in metal quonset buildings — 68 in our buildings. So many and so close that we had to share beds between the day crews and the night crews. I was in the 23rd bn. Later moved to the 68 when the 23rd moved to the US and then later to the 138th. Because of the terrible weather they called 6 months a tour of duty — I stayed there 26 months. The bright side was I wasn’t being shot at. Most of the furious fighting was going on, and all I was doing was putting in pipes and freezing my butt off.

Letter from Udell Cunningham, November 2005 Part 6

I was on Attu for 26 months. For the first 18 months we dug the ditches for pipes by hand — shovels. Later they “found” a backhoe to dig the lines. They had heavy equipment all along but never let us use them. They were new and had W.P.A. markings on them. If you don’t know, W.P.A. was an organization that Roosevelt organized to provide work during the Depression. I believe this equipment was amassed to use in the coming wars. I know that they didn’t use construction equipment during the W.P.A. years. Other activities of the W.P.A. [were] sewing-rooms and canneries for employing women.

My dad worked on the W.P.A. He rode a truck to Lubbock where they were making what turned out to be Lubbock Air Field. It is now the municipal airport. Reese Air Base was 10-12 miles west of Lubbock. One day while going to Lubbock, they encountered a rainstorm. Lightning struck the truck and injured several men. Dad was O.K.

Many crude jokes circulated about how lazy W.P.A. workers were and how you could tell if the worker leaning on a shovel was alive. They later hired Dad and his ’28 Chev. truck to haul dirt there in Lockney [Texas].

Letter from Udell Cunningham, November 2005 Part 5

Seabees were mostly older men with construction skills. These old carpenters, plumbers etc. were tough old no-nonsense types who tolerated no B.S. And then there were the young kids as helpers. When in “Boot” training, we had Marine drill instructors, but they pretty much went easy with us as the old men (some in forties) just wouldn’t take the usual crap that you see in the typical movies of basic military training. While on Attu I worked with a pipe-laying crew. My pipe fitter associates were old plumbers from Philadelphia. Boy could they relate some tales. This may seem odd to you but we installed wood pipe. Yeah these pipes were large diameter consisting of curved wood staves with tongue and groove sides. They formed a circle and were wrapped with large wire. The sewer pipes used wrapping about 3-inches apart. The high pressure pipes were about 10-12 ft. long. They had a cuff to join the individual pipes together. The wood pipes leaked initially but swelled and stopped leaking later. Oh, they were coated with creosote. They said these pipes withstood the wet environment better than iron pipe that rusted out. They knew we wouldn’t need them very many years. I’ll bet they are still there.

Letter from Udell Cunningham, November 2005 Part 4

In November of ’43 I became very ill. I went to the “sick bay” and because I had 104° temperature they put me in the hospital. Well, it was actually a quonset hut but they called it a hospital. They had two doctors. The older one was a gynecologist in civilian life. Then there was this young dude fresh out of Harvard Med. School. The young doctor thought I had meningitis and performed a spinal tap. You guessed it — I had cerebrospinal meningitis. I was in bed for three weeks on sulfa diazine pills. When I was in the hospital three troop transport ships came into Attu harbor to carry the Army 7th Division to the States for Xmas leave. I later found out that because I had the meningitis, and they didn’t know how many others might be infected, they sent the ships out — empty. When I was declared cured the Navy put me in an ambulance and took me to the Army Hospital for examination. Those Army doctors said to me “So you are the son of a bitch that kept us from going home.” I have often fantasized about going to a 7th Division reunion and telling them that I was the reason they never got home then. This Army division was kept on Attu for awhile and then to Hawaii where they got ready to invade Okinawa. I guess you can say I was a spoil sport. No, there were no more cases of meningitis on Attu. Might add that I got a special visit from the censorship office telling me that I could not write home and tell them I had meningitis. I told them [his parents] that I had the same problem that Dad had in France in WWI. They [the censors] never caught it. I should add that my dad was one of only two that survived the meningitis in France. The other man was from Little Rock [Arkansas]. They exchanged Xmas cards for many years. When I was in the hospital we had about 3 air raids. They couldn’t move me to the air raid shelter — I might contaminate the other patients. Luckily the planes bombed other places far away from the hospital.

Letter from Udell Cunningham, November 2005 Part 3

The reason the Navy gave for assigning me to the Seabees was that they could repair my eyeglasses if needed. Well, I was trying to play basketball in the Gym on Attu and broke my glasses. Naturally no facilities existed closer than Seattle. They advised me to write home and have my original optometrist make me a new pair from existing records. Oh, better get two pairs — that got me in trouble. I wrote Dad a letter asking for “two” pair of glasses. All letters were read by a censor and they had this iron-clad rule that you could not tell where you were, what you did, and never use a “number.” Yes I got my ass chewed, but when they saw my scotch-taped glasses they relented and let me order two pair of eyeglasses. This brings up a question… You see these books compiling “letters from the Battle Zone” etc. Just how in hell could these letters be genuine if all mail was censored?

Mother decided that if I went overseas she preferred to know where I was. Then when something happened, she would know if I was there or not. Well, we decided that I would use a code word to let her know that if that letter was encoded to let her know where I was. In the letter we used the second letter of each paragraph to spell out the location. Using the first letter of the first word of the paragraph was too easy to see. When I was talking to a chaplain later he said that he had a system to tell his wife where he was. Before embarking they got two large world maps. Across the top he placed Bible book titles. Along the side he placed numbers to signify chapters of the Bible. Thus when you said the subject of your sermon was Chapter 80 of the book of Matthew [yes, I realize that it doesn’t go that high — my grandfather was just being illustrative] you could go to the map and find the place. He said he was always afraid he would use a large chapter number that did not exist in some Bible books. I never asked him how he got away with using the dastardly forbidden numbers in his letters. Officer privilege I guess.

Letter from Udell Cunningham, November 2005 Part 2

In May of 1943 I went to the Navy recruiting station at Lubbock [TX.] and Amarillo. I couldn’t pass the physicals because of my eyesight. You had to have 20/30 or better to pass. Then, in June of ’43 I was drafted. About 17 of us were sent to Lubbock to the “reception” center. As usual, they had everyone placed in alphabetical order for the ordeal. They had “stations” that tested us. I was among the first to finish. I was surprised when they asked me if I had a preference to the service that I would serve. Naturally I said the Navy. They had this long table where an officer from the Army, Marines, Navy, & Coast Guard were seated. They gave my folder to the Navy. Well, he finally said that they would accept me into “Limited Duty.” He said that this would place me on a capital ship (Battleship, Carrier or large Cruiser) or in the Seabees. I asked him “What is a Seabee?” He replied that they were similar to the Army Corp of Engineers. Then he said that “You could always transfer if you wanted to.” Do you know that the word transfer does not exist in the Navy dictionary? From the reception center I was sent to the Navy recruiting station where I was “processed.” At the end of the day the officer in charge lined all of us up to be sworn in. Well, he told me to step aside as they had a special oath for “inductees.” I waited a while and then was handed some tickets home. You know, I was never sworn into the Navy. Does that mean I was never in the Navy?

Of the 17 men from Floyd County [Texas] inducted in June ’43 I was the only one going to the Navy. All the others went to the Army. About half ended up on Omaha Beach on D-Day and the other half in Patton’s Tank Corp. There were many casualties among them. I was indeed lucky.

Letter from Udell Cunningham, November 2005 Part 1

I received a letter from my grandfather in the mail today. It’s very long, filling nearly two 50-page notepads. I asked him to write down his memories and stories for me. Some of his letter I will share here. The remainder of this entry is his writing.

So you want me to write about things that I have done, seen or heard in my many years of experiences. I hope you know that historians claim that people as old as I usually forget things, embellish the things that they remember. I also will tell some things that happened during my lifetime. Please, please put the red correction pencil away [why must my family perpetually accuse me of grading their correspondence???]. I know that I break every grammatical rule ever made. I plan to relate tales, stories, or whatever that I know happened, but historians tell about the events in a vastly different manner… So if you’re ready, here goes the B.S….

I have personally met two famous generals. When on Attu our work crew decided to play hookey and drive over to the Army P.X. [Papa was in the Seabees in WWII]. We had a truck assigned to our crew to haul plumbing supplies and pipe. Anyway on the way to the P.X. we stopped beside the road and were lounging in the lush grass looking back along the Aleutian Island chain. This was an amazing sight as it was extremely clear. You could see back to the mainland. Anyway, this jeep stopped and a large soldier approached us. He asked who we were. We told him — Seabees. Anyway we told him the work we did. Then asked him what he did. He replied that he was the boss of the soldiers. He was Major General Simon Bolivar Buckner. General Buckner was the commander of the Army 7th Division. General Buckner was later “involved” with the invasion of Okinawa. He was killed by a sniper on Ie-Shima — the same small island where Ernie Pyle was killed. Ernie Pyle was a very famous writer that covered the war from the “grunt” level. The other general I met was Lt. General (3 star) Leon Johnson. I met him at Hensley Field, Texas in 1964. Gen. Johnson was the Colonel that led the planes on the infamous ill-fated raid on Ploesti, Romania. This was a raid designed to destroy Hitler’s oil supply. The planes got lost on the long run from bases in North Africa — broke radio silence and were met by [a] large group of the Luftwaffe. Most of the hundreds of planes were lost. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for this run.

Depression and Sacrifice

One of the more touching stories in my family history centers around my grandfather, David Edwin Swier, who passed away almost four years ago on July 29, 2001. I had always known that my grandfather was adopted, but I only found out the circumstances of his adoption upon his death. My mother sent me a photocopy of his obituary, which I believe was printed in the Yakima Herald-Republic:

SELAH — David Edwin Swier, 79, passed away Sunday, July 29, 2001 at his home in Selah. David was born December 29, 1921 in Spokane, WA to Omar and Gertrude Gearhart. His given name was Edwin Guy Gearhart. He was adopted by Walter and Laura Swier in 1930 and changed his name to David Edwin Swier.

David attended grade school and high school in Cowiche, WA. He enlisted in the U.S. Army during WWII and served as an aircraft and engine mechanic. He married Anita J. Brownell on September 20, 1957. They shared many joys together over the next 44 years.

David worked for his parents in the orchard business, and later worked for Michelson Packaging Co. before retiring. He enjoyed gardening, fixing up cars, and he particularly enjoyed spending time with his grandchildren.

He is survived by his wife Anita Swier of Selah, WA; four sons, David E. Swier of Ohio, Randy Swier of Kennewick, WA, Thomas Swier and his wife Patti of Georgia, Richard Swier and his wife Ellen of Toppenish, WA; and his daughter Debbie Swier of Kent, WA; 11 grandchildren; 3 great-grandchildren; 8 sisters, Eva Heier, Margie Water, Jessie Riddle, Betty Ann Bailey, Ruth Anderson, Carol Babb, Dorcas Tobin and Helen Marie West; and a brother, Frank Walker.

He was preceded in death by his parents and adoptive parents; 3 sisters, Mary Smith, Ruth Kyker and Alice McReynolds; and 3 brothers, Junior Gearhart, John Gearhart, and Donald Cannon.

A memorial service will be held on Thursday, August 2, 2001 at 3:00 p.m. at Keith and Keith Funeral Home, 902 W. Yakima Ave. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the donor’s favorite charity.

This obituary was most illuminating in my quest to find out more about my father’s family. I had never met nor corresponded with my grandfather. I had corresponded with my step-grandmother, Anita Brownell Swier, over the years, but my grandfather seem to be this silent, enigmatic figure who handed down his adopted name to me, but little else. Who was he?

Conspicuously absent from the obituary was a mention of my grandmother, who was my grandfather’s first wife. She and my grandfather divorced when my father was quite young. My father dislikes talking about his childhood; consequently, I knew little about his family.

I did know, as I mentioned previously, that my grandfather had been adopted. I did not know the names of his natural parents. My natural great-grandmother remarried some time after her children were adopted by other families, and my father knew her as Grandma Lightle. This was all the information we had, and we did not realize that Lightle had not been my grandfather’s birth name. Once I read the obituary, I posted some queries at online genealogy sites, and I was contacted by a cousin — her father, too, had been one of the Gearhart children. She told me the following story.

My great-grandfather, Omar Alfred Gearhart, suffered a gunshot wound to the head in a hunting accident. As a result of this brain injury, he drank a lot and could also become violently angry.

During the Great Depression, he opened up an auto repair garage with a partner. Shortly before his youngest child was born, he argued with his partner and was later found shot dead in the garage. The money and the partner were both gone.

After her husband’s murder, Gertrude was left with 10 children and was pregnant with another. She had no means of income. Her pregnancy hindered her ability to work. She had the baby — a boy — and still couldn’t find work. The older children would find work here and there, but it wasn’t enough to fill the needs of the family. They were all starving. Bessie, the third from the youngest, said that she remembered standing at her mother’s bedroom door waiting for her turn to nurse. Gertrude was trying to to nurse the three youngest children just to keep them alive.

Gertrude knew the situation couldn’t continue. She had heard the State of Washington was going to come and take her children away. She didn’t want them parceled out to distant homes, losing contact with each other. She wanted them to be able to stay in contact with each other. She went to her pastor and asked for help. They came up with a plan to ask the congregation for help. When the congregation was presented with the situation, members of the church stepped forward to adopt the children.

The adoption papers included Gertrude’s request that the children grow up knowing each other. The only children who weren’t adopted were those who were old enough to be on their own and the baby.

My grandfather was adopted by Walter Swier and Laura Helen Schmidt Swier. My father remembers them very fondly. His cousin Rick Zeutenhorst has told me he remembers going to their home in Cowiche for large family gatherings. His grandmother, Laura, used to hold him and croon softly to him in Dutch when he was upset. On the night his mother left, she held him like this all night. She was tragically killed in a car accident when my father was about 13. I honor both lineages in my family tree. Some people might say that since the Swiers were not my “blood” relatives that I shouldn’t include them in my genealogy. I disagree. If not for their willingness to help a poor family in need, I might not be here, as my grandfather may have died of starvation or else lived such a different life so as to be unable to meet and marry my grandmother and father five children. The Swiers provided my father with stability and rare moments of happiness in a difficult childhood, and I honor them for that.

I would like to learn more about the circumstances of my great-grandfather’s murder and the death of my great-grandmother. Through a Soundex-based search, I was able to discover the correct spelling of “Lightle” for her name and the month and year of her death — March, 1971. One of my research goals is to try to find desdendants of the other Gearhart children mentioned in this obituary and let them know their story, should they be interested. If you believe you may descend from Omar Alfred Gearhart and Gertrude Nettie Perkins, I would love to hear from you.

Udell Cunningham

My grandfather will turn 80 today. That deserves a mention in the family history blog, I think!

My grandfather was born Oliver Udell Cunningham on May 3, 1925 in Tulia, Swisher County, Texas to Herman Cunningham and Annie Lola Jennings Cunningham. His parents called him Udell from birth, I believe, and so later he legally changed his name to Udell Oliver Cunningham. The name Udell was suggested by Aunt Jenny, the second wife of Udell’s grandfather, Veto Curry Jennings (you can read a letter about John B. Jennings and view a photograph of him or you can view a photograph of his wife, Lucinda Fannie Curry). Aunt Jenny found the name in a book she had enjoyed, That Printer of Udell’s by Harold Bell Wright.

According to a family biography written in by his mother, Annie Cunningham, the Cunningham family moved to Lockney, Floyd County, Texas in 1931 (source: History of Floyd County, 1876-1979). My grandfather had an older brother, Alvin Herman Cunningham, born in 1921, and a younger sister, Flois Luene Cunningham, born in 1929. After the family’s move to Lockney, two more children were born: Nelda Gene Cunningham in 1937 and Carolyn Ann Cunningham in 1939. My great-grandmother explains in her family biography that all of the children except Alvin had the same first grade teacher — Mrs. Olga Applewhite. She believes “he would have had her too if [they] had moved to Lockney two years earlier.”

My grandfather played trombone in the high school band. At some point, possibly while he worked in the post office, he began collecting stamps. My grandfather has had a life-long interest in trains. He also likes big band swing. Animals and children see right through his gruff demeanor and love him on sight.

My grandfather first married Orlie K. Quisenberry and had with her a son, Michael Udell Cunningham, who has since changed his name to Michael Lee McElhaney. On October 27, 1951, my grandfather married my grandmother, Doris LaNell Thurman in Clovis, New Mexico. Together they had three children: Patti Jo Cunningham (my mother), Teddy Wayne Cunningham, and Terri Udell Cunningham.

My grandfather served in the Sea-Bees in the Navy during World War II. Later, he would join the U.S. Air Force and retire in the late 1970s with the rank of Master Sergeant. While in the Air Force, he worked principally as a photographer and told me he wrote a textbook on photography, which was uncredited because he was a serviceman. He still enjoys photography. While in the Air Force, the family lived in various locales, principally in Enid, OK., Aurora, CO., Nancy, France, and Kaiserslautern, Germany. My grandparents retired in Aurora, CO.

In his retirement, my grandfather likes to garden and usually plants flowers in several places all over his yard. I recall the yearly trips to Dardano’s Flowerland (which seemed to last for ages!) during which my grandparents would select flowers for their gardens.

My grandfather has six grandchildren: Dana Michelle Swier (me) and Lara Christine Swier, both children of Patti and Thomas Swier; Martin Priester Cunningham, child of Wayne and Helga Priester Cunningham; and Matthew Wayne Findley, Rebecca Lee Findley, and Amy Johanna LaNell Findley, children of Terri and Michael Findley.

As of this writing, my grandfather has ten great-grandchildren: Sarah Noelle Cooke, Margaret Elaine Huff, and Dylan Thomas Huff (my children by both my former husband Wayne Cooke, and my husband Steven Huff); Shane Mann, a step-son of my cousin Martin, and Alexander Markus Cunningham, Martin’s son with wife Becky; James Michael Valentine, Anna Grace Valentine, and William Andrew Valentine, my cousin Rebecca’s children with her husband James Valentine; Harley Hardin and Keith Ashley Hardin, my cousin Amy’s children with her husband Keith Hardin. My sister is expecting her first child in June, which will bring the total to eleven!

My grandfather clearly loves being a grandfather and great-grandfather. He would do surprising things with me when I was younger, like watch MTV videos — he made political commentary about Ronald Reagan when a clip of the then-president appeared in Ratt’s “Round and Round” video! He once threw a tomato worm at me. He chased me around the yard with a dead fish from his tropical fish tank, too. He used to make homemade ice cream and manned the grill (he makes the best steaks!). My grandmother is a seamstress and he always cuts out her patterns and installs the hardware for snaps on her creations. When I was very young, he smoked a pipe. He told me he quit because people only gave him pipes for Christmas. I don’t think there is anything my grandfather wouldn’t do or give for his loved ones. I spent many weekends with my grandparents when I was a child, and they looked after me after school until my mom left off work. He’s been a permanent fixture in my life, and we are very close. He has always shown an interest in the things I learn about our family history as I do my research, and he is always happy to share stories to add to my family history collection.

He took pictures of us all and chronicled our past. I am honored to chronicle his.

View photos of my grandfather (pop-up for larger versions):

Udell (on runner) and Alvin, circa 1927cousin L.C., Flois, Alvin, and UdellProbably circa 1935Probably circa 1941Circa 1940; one of my favorite pictures of PapaPapa on his way to marry GrannaHoneymoonPapa and Dylan snooze

Related Posts with Thumbnails