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Honoring An Extraordinary Calling To Serve
by National Guard Master Sgt. John Hughel
May 9, 2020

Who doesn’t love a good story, especially one that’s right in your own back yard? Service members of the military have all met an older veteran or two during their careers with a distinct experience that resonates uniquely from others. Recently, I was fortuitous to meet one of those veterans that answered two separate but powerful callings to serve others.

At age 99, Vincent Cunniff has seen the world change on a variety of levels, particularly in the world of aviation and flight, something he would become exceptionally familiar with serving in the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) during World War II.

October 10, 2019 - Rev. Vincent Cunniff proudly holds photographs from when he served as a bombardier during World War II and the day he was ordained as a priest in 1953. (Photo courtesy of Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon)
October 10, 2019 - Rev. Vincent Cunniff proudly holds photographs from when he served as a bombardier during World War II and the day he was ordained as a priest in 1953. (Photo courtesy of Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon)

On February 27, 2020 family members and staff at Sisters of St. Mary Oregon surprised Cunniff, who is now a resident at Maryville retirement community, with an award ceremony to honor his efforts during his service in the USAAF.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Cunniff was an engineering student at Oregon State University and learned of the surprise assault after returning from mass. He was also a member of the ROTC taking part in a rapid mobilization; from the campus going into imminent Blackout conditions at night, and soldiers and cavalry bivouacked on campus at Bell Field.

Cunniff would eventually join the USAAF or as he described, “the stepchild of the Army,” during the build-up during the war years. He became an armaments officer, commonly known as a “bombardier,” responsible for the German military and industrial aerial targets while assigned to the 392nd Bomb Group out of Wendling, England.

During the spring and summer of 1944, Cunniff flew 30 combat-missions aboard the B-24 Liberator surviving some of the most horrific air battles in the history of the USAAF. He eventually returned to the U.S. to start pilot training and had just finished the first level of instruction when the war ended in August 1945.

The Rev. Vincent Cunniff’s bomber crew. Standing left to right: Sgt. Raymond E. Sinclair, tail gunner, Sgt. Charles Shrader, engineer, Sgt. Aner E. Anderson, waist gunner, Sgt. John T. Carroll, radio operator, Sgt. John Puchir, top turret, Sgt. Robert L. Reynolds, gunner. Kneeling left to right: Lt. Russell E. Spensley, navigator, Lt. William C. Dick, Jr., co-pilot, Lt. Dewey L. Gann, pilot, and Lt. Vincent L. Cunniff, bombardier. (Photo courtesy of Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon)
The Rev. Vincent Cunniff’s bomber crew ... Standing left to right: Sgt. Raymond E. Sinclair, tail gunner, Sgt. Charles Shrader, engineer, Sgt. Aner E. Anderson, waist gunner, Sgt. John T. Carroll, radio operator, Sgt. John Puchir, top turret, Sgt. Robert L. Reynolds, gunner. Kneeling left to right: Lt. Russell E. Spensley, navigator, Lt. William C. Dick, Jr., co-pilot, Lt. Dewey L. Gann, pilot, and Lt. Vincent L. Cunniff, bombardier. (Photo courtesy of Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon)

For his service, Cunniff was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, and the ETO Medal for service in the European Theater of
Operations. Yet during the surprise ceremony held at St. Mary's other service awards were presented that he was unaware he had earned.

The idea for the ceremony came from family members Susan Blake, Cunniff’s niece and Dennis Kreutzer, whose mother and Cunniff were cousins and neighbors growing up in Marshfield, Oregon.

Kreutzer reached out to Oregon Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Josh Flores with the Honor Guard to assist in presenting the medals in a symbolic manner. After a few phone calls and emails, it became my distinct fortune as a member of the Air Force to present these new awards to Vincent Cunniff.

As many staff members came together to take part in the surprise, Cunniff was welcomed into a room of several friends and family members and a local television affiliate KGW-8 for the awards ceremony. The event was deeply touching to everyone involved as I read the orders and pinned on four of the awards sent to Cunniff by the U.S. Air Force.

The end of the war meant there was not as much need for pilots. Cunniff, like so many other veterans at the time, now faced new decisions. One of the promises he made to himself during his time in flying combat missions was entering the priesthood.

“If I flew and lived through the war, I would strive to be a candidate for the priesthood,” he described to Stacy Kean when she interviewed him for a recent account of his war years for the “Spirit Newsletter.”

After one mission, in particular, Cunniff said he pulled a fatal piece of shrapnel from the front of his flak jacket near his chest, “It’s a strange thing that I survived,” he recalls now, reflecting on his war experience.

Cunniff would eventually enter the seminary in Denver and was later ordained as a priest in 1953, making his way back to Portland. His service as a Catholic Priest took him to Medford, Oakridge, St. Joseph in Salem, Immaculate Heart in Stayton, St. Peter’s in Eugene, St. Peter’s in Portland and Our Lady of the Dunes in Florence.

His philosophy to serve as a priest, much like his desire to serve his nation during the war was simple, “The Lord didn’t look for the brilliant ones, and he took fishermen--for people who answered the call.”

His experience during the war influenced his life too, looking for ways to “settle our differences without war.”

As his life has come full circle and he enjoys his golden years in the company of those at Marysville, it was enjoyable to see his community of faith acknowledge him for the choices he made after serving in the military.

While pinning his medals, it was a delight watching his sense of surprise of the moment, mixed into his recollections of his military service to those on hand.

“My combat years are really engraved in my memory, both the good and the bad,” he said to those honoring him. “The good ones, like today’s are the ones that really matter.”

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