|Photo taken by Joseph James Jordan|
James Kenneth Cunningham, Jr. was a life-long citizen of Montevallo for almost 90 years. His parents married in 1921 and rented a room in a large house that stood where Montevallo's post office parking lot is today. Then they moved to Selma Street and Mr. Cunningham was born there in 1924. His father clerked in George Kroell's store. In 1928 the family moved to Spring Creek Road and purchased a farm. He attended the Montevallo school system until the beginning of ninth grade. He was an honors student.
" I joined the football team and broke my leg one day at practice before the season started. I was in a cast for at least six weeks. My father realized I could ride a tractor and plow the fields even with a broken leg. He bought two tractors and put me on one and Alfred Allen on the other. We sold the mules and Alfred and I plowed up the land. I never went back to school."
Mr. Cunningham turned 18 during World War II and was soon drafted into service.
" The man at the desk said, Army or Navy? and I said Navy. He stamped my paper Army and laughed."
After basic training, he found himself on a boat headed to Italy.
" We went first to Naples and Purple Heart Valley for five or six weeks. Then we loaded up on ships and sailed to Southern France"
Mr. Cunningham soon found himself in combat.
"I went to the front after an early Thanksgiving dinner and remained there for about four months."
Mr. Cunningham said the method of finding the enemy was like this. The first scout would be 50 yards ahead. Then the 2nd scout would follow about 15 yards behind. If either drew fire, the unit would form a line for attack.
His unit marched to Selestat over the Vosges mountains. A heavy constant rain fell and deep ravines slowed the progress of the men. The unit held on to ropes to cross the rivers. Mr. Cunningham was serving as Number One machine gun ammo bearer. He followed the gun man who followed the tripod soldier about 20 feet ahead.
" My group caught up with the Germans at Selestat.. We were in Company D, of the 142nd, called the T-Patch Texas Division. We followed Company C. They were the tough ones. "
The Battle at Selestat was a hard-fought battle. Company D went from house to house climbing in ground floor windows. The houses were about three feet apart. When one house would be cleared, the men hurled grenades into the next house before entering it. This method continued until the unit emptied the entire town of enemy soldiers.
" Sometimes we had to push each other up to reach the ground floor windows."
"During the battle, I missed the window of one of the houses. I thought my unit had gone around the house so I decided to run to the street where I thought the others were. I was met with German machine gun fire. I heard the clack-clack-clack of the enemy machine guns. A fellow soldier from New York pulled me back, yelling at me " Boy, get the hell back in here! " As long as you could hear the bullets pinging, you were OK. If the sound of the bullets stopped, you knew you might be hit."
Some of the enemy were firing from a cellar. One of the American tanks pulled up and fired three shots at five minute intervals trying to take them out.
" After the tank would fire, the Germans would rise up and fire at the tank. After the third tank shell, those who were alive retreated."
Many died there.
The Battle of Selestat was soon followed by more action at Oberhoffen.
"Oberhoffen was tough, too. We would advance, then fall back, then advance again. So many bombs had dropped and so much artillery had fired that only a few of the houses still had roofs on them. During the battle one of our planes dropped a bomb on the house next to the one we were in. It took out the house but luckily for us it only took off the roof of the one where we were."
On January 7, 1945, his company was sleeping in fox holes that the Germans or French had dug. The ceiling was made of logs and heavy snows had covered the logs with a thick layer of ice and snow. An enemy shell landed on the roof where he was sleeping. The shrapnel from the shell wounded him and several other soldiers. Some were killed. If the ice had not been so thick, they all believed they would have died there.
" I got my purple heart from the wounds I received that night. One of my buddies and I could not hear for three weeks."
All along the march toward Berlin, friendly French and German families would take soldiers into their homes for a hot meal and a warm place to sleep. Mr. Cunningham had photographs of some of the families who would provide shelter for the night.
The war ended later that year, and Mr. Cunningham returned to his family in Montevallo and purchased the farm from his father. He became a dairy farmer, a business his mother's family had been in for over 100 years. Many people in Montevallo will remember the cows along the creek. Some of the farmland became Orr Park when Mr. Cunningham and his wife Nettie Catherine sold part of the land to the city and donated the rest. Mr. Cunningham's son and daughter still own 20 acres of what was once a 300 acre farm. Jesse Wilson, credited as Montevallo's first settler, built his cabin on the hill above the spring in Orr Park in 1817. Mr. Cunningham was a direct descendant of Jesse's brother, Benjamin.
Mr. Cunningham ended his dairy business in the 1970's and planted the fields with okra, tomatoes, and corn. He farmed the land as he had done when a teenager during the Great Depression. In his late 80's, he said he was tired of working and asked his son if he could go to the Veteran's home and take it easy for a while.
His son says, " My father decided he was ready to go to the Veteran's home in Bay Minette to be near my sister who lives in Fairhope. He asked me if I thought they would make him wear a uniform. I assured him they would not."
His son collected stories from family members in a ledger, and several pages contain accounts such as those above used to write this article.