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)
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
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
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
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.
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
“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
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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