He was born in 1912. The year RMS Titanic sank in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.
Still a wee child, he visited a cemetery with his mum. He saw about five tiny graves with the bigger ones, and he seems to have known what that meant, but he did not understand.
His mum told him, of the dead babies, “They’re angels now,” because she could not bear to see her sensitive little boy grieve. Infant mortality was high. Death was a transient; it went from house to house with no mercy, no boundaries.
As George S. Patton was fighting in World War One half a world away, little Frank Cunningham watched, helpless, as the 1918 influenza pandemic killed people in the neighborhood. His mother caught it. She became very sick. He wasn’t allowed in the house; his grandfather looked after Frank and his siblings.
The 1918 influenza pandemic was known through the censorship of news as the Spanish flu because no one reported the infection outside of Spain. In reality it was the H1N1 virus. It wiped out five percent of the world’s population because at the time, sanitary conditions aided the spread of the disease and weakened immune systems couldn’t handle it when sepsis complicated the condition of the patients. Many caught the flu and died within a day or two.
Frank’s mother survived, but never fully recovered. She died within months.
This was life in Brooklyn, New York. Frank’s Brooklyn. Losing his mum, at age five. Frank’s father, involved in local politics, would have to raise his children.
Above: victims of the 1918 influenza pandemic at Fort Riley, Kansas.
Very little could bother the Irish Americans back then. Devout Catholics, they remained mostly apart from the nearby Italian and other communities. They were however painfully clear that they were looked down upon. Pride of heritage dampened the pain. They were known as hard drinkers, tough fighters and some of the most durable workers around. Prejudice made people not want to socialize with them, but at dawn, you wanted them on your work crews. And no matter who did what, everyone was expected to attend Mass. If one had indulged in too many pints the night before, and missed attending Mass, it would be noticed, and a gentle reminder would be given by a visitor later. There would be jokes about pints and Irish whiskey, but the taunts stung and the following week, there wouldn’t be any repeated absence.
As a community, they were to be admired. They watched out for each other. They visited. They took care of each other and allowed caskets in their parlors if a neighbor had lost a family member and had no room for the casket and mourners. “Death Watch” was a grim ritual during the time the deceased rested in someone’s home. This consisted of monitoring the ice beneath to ensure the body remained chilled. The smell, especially in a hot summer, could quickly overcome mourners should the family run out of ice.
Young Frank grew up to have empathy for families who lost loved ones, and his compassion for the little babies grew to include anyone in trouble, in pain, in dire straits. He followed his father into politics before enlisting in the United States Army. The Cunningham men were patriots.
Name: Frank A. Cunningham Jr.
First term of enlistment: undetermined. Discharged from the Army: 6 December, 1941. Recalled: 8 December, 1941.
Artilleryman: skilled at every crew position with every piece of artillery used by U.S. Army
Served in World War Two: North Africa campaign, Tunis campaign, Sicily campaign, European campaign under General George S. Patton, U.S. Third Army; and General Omar N. Bradley, II Corp; various.
A field artillery was a critical component to the U.S. Third Army, given to Patton after the Normandy invasion. The units were manned by rigorously trained troops, some of the most skilled in any branch of the ground forces in Africa, Italy and the European campaign. The German Wehrmacht (infantry, armor) feared them more than any other units, including armor and air divisions.
In a typical engagement, they would see a small spotter plane buzz overhead, usually a single engine Piper. If the Germans were entrenched or not it made no difference; if the spotter had seen them, they had no safety. A barrage would soon rain death on them.
With each 105 mm or 155 mm shell fired, the result was a blast spread up to half an American football field. Anyone inside the radius would be killed; those outside of it would be wounded by shrapnel and bits of other debris, fire and heat from the thermal wave; gas would suffocate and poison them and white phosphorus would burn them to the bone. At a further distance the sound alone damaged ears. Often there was a secondary explosion that happened if small ammo stocks were cooked off or vehicles were hit.
As a corporal gunner, Frank was part of a crew. His job would have been to align the sights according to his spotter on a radio, either on the ground in a vantage point or in an aircraft. But Frank was left-handed. He was perfect for the gunner team’s pin-puller.
The range of artillery was particularly advantageous. It could be expressed in miles. Both cannon and gun could deliver rounds of high explosive, white phosphorus, antitank and chemical weapons. There were also rounds which could light an enemy position up for more accurate spotting at night.
Top: artillery crew from Oklahoma.
Middle: the soldier on the right is the pin-puller, a position perfect for a Southpaw like Frank Cunningham Jr.
Bottom: artillery crews in the choreography of the job.
Frank was already experienced when America entered the war. As such he was indispensable and was responsible for saving allied troops by killing panzers, lots of infantry and enemy mortars and fixed machine guns. He and his other mates in the battery could also, if properly deployed, lay waste to several city blocks, taking out heavy machine guns and hidden infantry. Unfortunately, the Nazis were fanatics and gladly moved infantry into shelled buildings because wreckage and missing gaps in exterior walls offered both concealment and protection. Untold numbers of Allied troops walked right into ambushes this way.
BATTLE OF THE BULGE, WINTER, 1944
Once France was liberated at a high cost, Frank followed Patton into Europe, but an offensive by the Nazis caused Patton to order contingency plans be made by his staff in case what he feared came true. Summoned to a meeting, he found his fears had come true. The plans he’d allowed for were necessary and urgent. The Germans had made a fairly intense and concentrated attack along the allied front, pushing a bulge deep into already captured territory and had trapped allied troops. Patton made an historic forced march and attacked along with other units to the north. His men were dedicated to him and in fact loved “Old Blood and Guts”, and through snow and the coldest winter Europe had seen in a long time, they marched without rest and went right into the fighting.
By now, Frank had met the general several times. He met a man who, when he was just a lad, had been fighting near the same area in another war.
Frank also learned every dirty name there was for Germans. Like “Fritz”, “Krauts”, and “Jerries”. “Huns”, a mostly British-used term and carryover from the first world war. Also used was “Heinies”, a shortened form of “Heinrich”, but which roughly translated to “idiot”. Perhaps the most disparaging name came from World War One: “Boche”, or “Bosch”, pronounced “Bosh”, or most often, rhyming with “wash”. It literally meant “blockhead” but was meant to infer racial stupidity and thick-headedness. Even “Nazi” was just shorthand for the government Hitler had installed, but was used disparagingly. Frank Cunningham Jr didn’t care. He hated the Germans, who by now had shown him what true evil was. He’d follow Patton anywhere and kill all the Germans he could.
THE LOST PLATOON
Frank was so cold that he didn’t care anymore. He would say simply, “We had to stay and fight. You did what you had to do.”
This is typical of all war veterans but more so with World War Two. No one really came back bragging about what they did in the war. Most never spoke about it at all. Those who did speak kept it simple: “We did what we thought was right.”
But in a foxhole in the Ardennes, being shelled by German 88 mm guns, Frank’s intense hatred may have ripened. He saw his friends die. Some by enemy fire, some by freezing to death. So frozen that they were stiff. Like statues.
Hand to hand combat broke out. Weapons and ammunition had to be taken from the dead. Deafening noise and flashes from the 88s drove men to madness.
Somewhere in all of this, Frank found himself on foot, likely armed with an M-1 Garland or a Thompson. He came across a platoon of men pinned down by MG-42s in a pill box or bunker, it’s not clear which. He took command and ordered them to give him “covering fire.”
They immediately knew what he was going to do. Even artillerymen carried hand grenades.
But going up against twin MG-42s was suicidal. Allied infantry called it “the Zipper” because the heavy machine gun had a fearful rate of fire and sounded like a huge zipper. It was the favored heavy squad weapon of the Wehrmacht, and from the landing craft opening their doors at Normandy, the guns had slaughtered thousands. In fact the rate of fire was so great that an assistant gunner had to help reload when an ammo belt was expended, as well as change the barrel because they overheated until they glowed. This distorted the barrel, from heat expansion, and caused inaccuracy. Spare barrels were always kept ready.
Frank waited until his men opened fire on the gunners during reloading. He flanked the position and tossed in grenades and killed the machine gunners. He earned a Silver Star and a Bronze Star for his brave exploits.
THE UGLINESS OF WAR
The race to the Rhine was on. After the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes, Patton fought for land and streaked toward the Rhine River. He was stopped by fuel being diverted for the disaster of Operation Market Garden, and it enraged him. Fighting at one point saw tanks out of gas and shells, forcing infantry fighting that eventually went hand to hand. Despite huge losses on the Eastern Front, Hitler wasn’t giving ground willingly. Almost every mile had to be fought for, save for stretches when there was nothing, and good time could be made. Allied casualties, including missing and captured, were horrific.
Frank never got used to seeing his buddies die. Sometimes right in front of him. Artillery was a high-level threat to the enemy. The Germans sent everything they could to knock them out, from the fighters and bombers of the Luftwaffe to tanks, artillery, mortar and Panzerschrek teams, to snipers. All took their toll.
Frank saw grievous wounds, from headshots to totally mutilated bodies, all of whom he had known. He had no time to stop and grieve or feel survivor’s guilt. There was a war to win. He remembered how Patton had once ordered a priest to write a prayer for clear weather so his men could have air support. The general then had copies of the prayer sent to his men. They were all to say the prayer. Even atheists complied, and the weather had cleared. He had faith in God, being a devout Catholic, but he also believed in George Patton and the allied cause.
George Smith Patton was a brilliant but uncomplicated man. He’d taught and graduated at and from West Point, and was a big part of developing main battle tanks and tactics. He was a devout Catholic and yet loved the idea of leading fine soldiers into glorious battle. He didn’t like his voice, so he compensated by cussing and yelling. But despite the two slapping incidents, his men came to be devoted to him. When he joined them in a road march or battle, they became fiercely protective, yet were honored to be spoken to by him . They would have followed him to the ends of the Earth.
German high command considered Patton to be their biggest threat, and not a few actually admired him.
4 April 1945
It was two elements of Third Army that had pushed into the area. They were south of Gotha, deep inside Germany. And though rumors had been heard, nobody had been quite able to believe them. But the Rumors were true. And even Patton, who, as promised, had urinated in the Rhine River as his troops crossed pontoon bridges, was brought up short.
It was a work concentration camp. And as the Third Army approached, the Schutzstaffel (the SS) had tried to hide the ghastly evidence of their crimes. Prisoners had been forced to march from the camp to other camps, and stragglers, too weak to continue, were shot off-site and left in the open. In the compound, corpses had been dug up from a mass grave and partially incinerated.
In one shed there was a stack of emaciated corpses. Patton refused to enter because he would get sick. The stench was overwhelming. Another general described what had gone on there as “bestiality”, not in the animal-human sexual sense, but in the sense of bestial horrors committed by people against other people. Frank Cunningham Jr was there. There were survivors and the G.I.s wanted to feed them. They were told not to, as it would kill them. They were given liquids and broth, attended by medics, and sent to hospitals. Most did not survive. One asked Frank for something. Frank had never dreamed of anything like this; the prisoners, he said later, were bags of skin stretched loosely across skeletons. Frank gave the man on the ground what he asked for. Then watched the man take his last breath.
Above, top: US Generals at OHRDRUF; bottom: US soldiers skirting rows of bodies. It was said, “You couldn’t tell the difference between the living and the dead until one moved”.
The visions stayed with Frank and haunted him for the rest of his life. He would try to describe the smell, but never could. The camp was full of lice. Rodents. Dead bodies. Dying men whose last vestige of dignity had long since died.
When he came home to New York City, he was, of course, a different man. Although not entirely in the way that you would expect. For the rest of his life, it’s true, he held a passionate dislike for German people, but after what he saw, it’s understandable. And he was not alone.
Frank made it back to Brooklyn with an indelible memory of how not to treat people. He picked up where his father left off. He was the the chief clerk of the appellate division of the New York Supreme Court as well as a District Leader 52nd Assembly District. And since he learned from his father and he had years of experience with inhumanity, Frank Cunningham Jr took his job seriously. It was nothing for him to buy some turkeys and personally go around giving them to families whose holidays would otherwise have been hungry occasions.
And Frank Cunningham was a fortunate man, and he appreciated it. He knew what it was like to watch his fellows die right in front of him. He knew men who came home blind, missing limbs, or useless to society after being traumatized beyond their ability to live with what happened over there.
By all accounts, Frank Cunningham earned his good fortune. He would visit those he represented. He would stop in the street and listen to their problems, then he would fix them. He met a special woman named Jane, who he seemed to connect with on every level. They married and had a daughter, and when he was raising her up, he had some remarkable things to say.
He taught her not to judge others, to resist it at all costs. That kindness and compassion were not optional but required in life. He took in strays, sometimes to her surprise. As he would say, “(they’ve) got no where else to go.” Sometimes the strays had special reasons to be away from home. One might have been confronted by his parents for being gay, which was not the word used back then. It was a much harsher name, used in the harshest way possible. Frank could never quite understand why a parent would kick their own child out into the streets, and it pissed him off, no matter what the reason was. One boy, I’m sure a teen, was such a case. Gay by absolutely no fault of his own or anyone else’s, his father had beaten him. Frank Cunningham told the man that if he ever touched that boy again, some really horrible things would happen. One thing Frank learned, probably while growing up Irish in a city that was historically hostile to the Irish, and then hammered into him for good in places in Europe he would never be able to forget, was the value of doing the right thing no matter who you were up against.
CRAZY JOE GALLO
Joseph “Crazy Joe” Gallo was born in Red Hook, Brooklyn, New York. Surprisingly, it’s also where Frank Cunningham Jr was born. It’s where Al Capone was born. And, incidentally, it’s where Steve Rogers was born and lived before becoming Captain America.
Joe Gallo was no Captain America; he was a monster in the Profaci crime family, which would become the Colombo family. He was once evaluated at Kings County Hospital and diagnosed with schizophrenia.
That doesn’t make a person crazy, so obviously there was another reason for his gangster name. A detective once said Gallo had steel balls. He was known in Brooklyn by a lot of people, and he wavered between gang life and a hipster’s existence in Greenwich Village. He was imprisoned several times and is still believed to be one of the gunmen who killed mob boss Albert Anastasia.
One day, somewhere in Brooklyn, before his hipster life, he came across a little girl on her way home from school. He probably meant no harm as children didn’t seem to interest him. But Joe Gallo was a frightening man and the girl was bothered by him and scared of him.
Word of the encounter soon reached Frank Cunningham, who waited in the same place until Gallo walked past. Frank walked out into the street and calmly told Gallo he’d heard about the girl. He said that if he ever went near the child again, something bad would happen.
And Crazy Joe Gallo, the man with steel balls, looked into the eyes of Frank Cunningham Jr and saw something he was finally afraid of. He raised no hand. He did not talk back. He apologized and avoided Frank afterward. Frank never backed down.
He stood up for people in the streets where gangs roved and left dead bodies behind. Frank taught his own daughter well. He warned her of the people to avoid, the places never to go, and he imparted a wisdom and a philosophy ahead of its time, that being that, no matter who or what someone was, whether gay, of a certain ethnicity, or whatever, they had the right to live free of fear, to prosper, to thrive. And usually it just came down to survival; that’s how it was. No prospering, just staying alive from one day to the next. But Frank Cunningham always did whatever he could to help. A revolutionary thinker, a teacher, a friend, a guy who anyone could go to for help.
After a long list of neighbors asked him for help with getting a traffic light at a dangerous intersection, he tried and failed even after giving eyewitnesses testament to seeing scary accidents and near misses with pedestrians. The DPW turned him down but it was obviously a dangerous intersection. This happened a couple of times if not more. Frank never gave up. If one of his constituents needed something, they usually got it. With the same dedication he’d carried with him when he slogged across Europe and North Africa. He was disciplined and conditioned and believed he didn’t have the job of doing what was right, he had the honor and a mission to do what was right. And he got the traffic lights people asked for. Every one of them.
He learned from his grandfather that an outpatient mental health facility had been planned to be built in his district but that part of Brooklyn had some expensive housing, including lots of beautiful brownstones, owned by people who definitely did not want such a thing near them. Frank knew it was needed.
He’d caught on early that the rich were unyielding and could be insufferably selfish. His father would point out a couple getting into a buggy a block away, and call the woman “rich bitch” and say to Frank, “They’re just showing off.” But there was no real derision; it was said humorously but Frank learned lessons, just as his father intended. Someone who served the people could never get away from the fact that they served the poor too; that everyone mattered, everyone. Frank took that and kept it deep inside his heart. And he and his grandfather fought for the outpatient clinic, and it was built. And it stands today.
It had to happen. Sooner or later, it was bound to. For men like Frank Cunningham, there’s a price to pay for being an honorable man. A price for having demons. A price for all the things the eyes have seen. For having a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, Purple Heart….
A family moved into Frank’s building. Frank knew immediately that they were Germans. Mother, daughter, and dad, just the right age. Frank was looking at a Nazi, a Bosch. It filled him with rage when he met the man, who sensed what was happening and could not look Frank in the eyes. Worse, his daughter was friends with Frank’s daughter. But such a good father was he that Frank could never deny his little girl a friend. Especially when his daughter asked him why he apparently didn’t like the man. He calmly explained. He ended by saying he’d never trust the man.
The time finally came for him to tell her about the concentration camp. How he could never forget it. How it smelled, and battle-hardened men had thrown up all over the place and how he’d given a prisoner something and then watched him die.
As his daughter grew, attending Catholic school, Frank continued to teach her everything he could about fairness, honor and even politics. He knew governors, even presidents. To this day she remembers every little detail about their talks. Their trips to Mets games. Coney Island, to fundraisers, and in every place she met stars, sports figures including Nolan Ryan, whom she adored, Sandy Koufax, and Joe Namath, who she thought was really nice but not handsome. As for the former German soldier, Frank found himself unable to treat him with malice; he had been through something terrible and Frank could see it in his eyes, but there was more to it. The man, Herr Flamme (or Flamm), which oddly enough could be German-Jewish, had some demons of his own. He rarely spoke and he often visibly shook, trembling as if a man shell shocked, overloaded, still seeing things and hearing sounds that people who weren’t in his shoes could never imagine. Frank knew what that was. He was never mean, cruel or abusive to his neighbor. They often saw each other on the street. Frank always spoke to him and he always offered his hand. Something unspoken existed between them which Flamme never forgot. Perhaps it was as simple as mutual agreement that the war was over. No such men ever stopped to analyze; they simply chose to live with their pasts the best way they could. Herr Flamme’s wife, a native of Bavaria, was jolly and very endearing. She held her husband together as they raised Ingrid, who turned out to be a good friend to Frank’s daughter for years to come.
Frank’s daughter married, and became pregnant, but Frank was diagnosed with cancer. His career had ended, he was retired, and his life was ending as another began.
From the time when she was little, Frank’s daughter had known her calling. She was a keen student of medicine, and became a nurse. Fathers and Daughters share a special bond, something sacred and pure and unique. The hardest thing he ever did was lie on a bed in his house, and depend on her for the care his wife was unable to give in her own state of health.
One day, when sunshine streamed through his curtains, Frank said to his daughter, “I think I’d like to go to Coney Island.” Surprised, she asked if he could manage it, and he said yes, and she went to get the car. On the way, he mentioned Nathan’s, which is the place everyone is talking about when they use the expression, “I want a Coney Island hot dog.”
They made it to Nathan’s and he managed to eat some of the hot dog and most of a Nathan’s orange drink. He could not finish it because he became dizzy, but he wasn’t finished with the outing yet. “I want to see the water,” he said. It wasn’t permitted, but his daughter got permission from a police officer to drive under the boardwalk to the beach.
Frank took his time, remembering things, gazing at the water, and said, “We had a lot of good times here, didn’t we?”
Holding back emotions she dared not give vent to, she said softly, “Yes, Dad. We did.”
“I’m ready to go home,” he said. It was the last time he ever saw Coney Island.
Because of his pain, his daughter had to administer Demerol shots, but Frank A. Cunningham Jr, who had endured being wounded in combat, the freezing winter in 1944-1945 and the scorching heat of North Africa, who had known pain so well all of his life, swore. “I don’t need that, I want a Tylenol. One Tylenol.”
“But Dad,” she said, “It’s only Vitamin-K, and you need it.” She gave him the Demerol. After a few minutes he said, “I hate to tell you this, but that Vitamin-K went bad. I am high.”
Remembering the exchange now, she can laugh at his reaction, but the story ends elsewhere.
One evening as she was tending to him, he said, “Bring me my wallet, would you? Tomorrow is your mother’s birthday. I want you to get her something nice from me.”
She got him the wallet. “Get a cake, and go to Jake the jeweler and pick out something nice.”
So she did, bringing back a card and a necklace with a diamond. Frank slept with them under his pillow. He was still so very much in love with his Jane.
Then, the time finally came when Frank had to go to the hospital. His daughter stayed with him as much as she could. He talked about the Mets, and she knew that in his mind, he was seeing the team as it was in the 1969 World Series, when they beat the Baltimore Orioles. He and his daughter had attended one of those games.
For a short time, he kept getting worse. Then, he rallied. He was hungry and asked for steak and lobster. He also wanted a beer. It was all brought to him. He ate, drank most of the beer. He was happy. His Daughter knew the end was near.
It reminded his daughter that, a month earlier, he’d surprised her by asking for a drink of Scotch. “Neat?” she asked and he said, “Don’t know if I can handle that. Mix some water and soda, would you?”
After his rally, he slipped into a coma. He was attended by a resident oncologist whom he had watched grow up. He was surrounded by his family and friends, not one of whom could picture the world without him in it. There were tears and broken hearts. Grief filled the room.
Twelve hours later, Frank Aloysius Cunningham Jr was dead.
He was administered the Last Rites with two priests who were part of those surrounding him. It was April, 1983.
As was proper in Irish circles, and with decorated war veterans and a man who carried cash only in case a neighbor should need help with rent, Frank Cunningham Jr was given a grand send-off. The viewing was attended by neighbors, community leaders, family and one man who surprised his daughter: Herr Flamme. He looked at Frank lying there, and no one knows what his thoughts were, but he was no doubt feeling grateful for the way he had been treated by an honorable man. He found Frank’s daughter and he said gently, “Your father was a good man.”
Three months later, Frank’s first grandchild, a precious baby girl, was born. His daughter named her Jane.
There were so many people left behind whose lives had been enriched by the gentle giant who never asked whether a neighbor was a Democrat, a Catholic, straight or gay, but without question stretched out his hand and offered to help. A man who went to war and saw things no one who wasn’t there can grasp even with the footage and photographs taken. A man who refused to back down, who faced off against a murderer and scared the mobster who would eventually die in a hail of bullets because he feared no one else.
Such a man was Frank Cunningham Jr, who would not want to see the pain felt right now or to see the treachery of the government…of the land he fought for and served. He was a hero, one of many, a better angel who was honorable and wise and kind.
He deserves to be remembered. But more than that, he would want us to remember a time when we fought for what was right, and in so doing, made the world a better place.