NAVY SKY PILOT -FATHER CUNNINGHAM WATCHES OVER SAILORS IN PUERTO RICO

By Sgt. Joe McCarthy

YANK Staff Writer

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO—When a couple of hundred sailors are stranded here without pay for six weeks, waiting for their ships to return from convoy duty, it doesn’t take them long to get their hands on folding money. “Let’s find this Father Cunningham,” somebody in the crowd says. “A guy in Jamaica told me about him. He’ll fix us up.”



When the chief petty officers at the huge Naval Air Station wanted to set up a bar in their new social club nobody gave it a second thought. “Just let Father Cunningham handle it,” one of the chiefs said.

father cunningham us navy puerto rico

Father Cunningham received a customer at his office in the Naval Air Station

It’s the same way when a marine is having girl trouble or a metalsmith second class gets in a jam with the shore patrol or the glee club needs its piano tuned. The man who handles all these problems is one of the most popular and best known navy celebrities in the Caribbean.

His full name is James F. Cunningham and he’s a Paulist missionary from Waterbury, Conn., who used to cover a 7,000-square-mile parish in the hills of Tennessee with an altar mounted on a trailer before he took off his Roman collar two years ago and joined the Navy.



His Day is Busy and Varied

Now he wears the khaki working uniform of a lieutenant commander and occupies the chaplain’s office off the library in the Naval Air Station recreation hall at San Juan. But nobody ever uses his official title and the hundreds of sailors whom he calls by their first names don’t think of him as a chaplain.

The other day, for instance, he was getting out the latest edition of the San Juan Breeze, the Naval Air Station’s journal of opinion, gossip, basketball and bowling-league standings. At the same time he was helping the athletic and recreation officer arrange a Saturday program, which starts off at 1 P.M. with a conference basketball game between the Naval Air Officers and the Ordnance Department, continues through two more games in the afternoon and then, at 7, involves the station’s varsity five and an Army team from the post at San Juan. When the smoke clears after the final whistle, there is a concert by the Naval Air Station band for a half hour. Then the auditorium lights go out for a showing of the latest Lana Turner movie. By that time, Father Cunningham and the A. and R. officer, Lt. E.R. Bowman, are exhausted but their work isn’t done. There is still another movie, a midnight show beginning at 11 and running until 1 A.M.

“We put on the midnight show to bring the drunks back from town early,” Father Cunningham explains. It isn’t everybody who could get as much as $13,000 at a crack from the finance office to pay sailors separated from their ships, as he does almost every week. “Well, maybe it doesn’t take a little diplomacy but not much,” he says, “but you have to do something when you see these guys coming ashore for the first time in months with no pay in their pockets.”

When he isn’t involved with the San Juan Breeze; the recreation hall or the disbursing office, the Padre, as he is known all over Puerto Rico, can usually be found in the hospital calling off bingo numbers and throwing in a dollar or two from his own pocket to make a game more interesting. Or supervising the reconstruction of his Santa Barbara Chapel.  The chapel is an old Spanish powder magazine built here in 1770. He points to the old Spanish sentry boxes in the corners of the wall. “We’re making these into confessionals,” he says.



Changing the sentry boxes into confessionals may do away with the green-and-white sign reading “Confessions Now Being Heard” which the Padre hangs on the door of his office when he hasn’t time to hear them in the chapel. It didn’t take the sailors long to discover that the sign kept people out of Father Cunningham’s office and they took to hanging it on the door and retiring inside during his absence when they wanted peace and privacy for love letter-writing or some other important personal work.

“One time were having a hog-calling contest here,” Father Cunningham says, “And one of the boys wanted a quiet place to rehearse. He sneaked into this office and hung the sign on the door. It so happened that a lieutenant commander came to see me about some business that day. He stopped outside when he saw the sign, but as he was turning away he heard the hog-caller inside, yelling his head off.

“The next day, the lieutenant commander met me and said that he had accidently overheard one of my confessions. ‘They certainly are noisy,’ he added. ‘What kind of penance do you give these guys?’”

Father Cunningham’s San Juan Breeze is one publication from a chaplain’s office that is read from cover to cover. That’s because even the editorials on chastity are written in realistic terms that make sense to the toughest sailor.

The most popular feature of the Breeze is the Cosmic Eye, a racy, outspoken gossip column that puts the rap on everybody in the Navy Air Station. Here is some typical Cosmic Eye items:

“McLaughlin’s gal is called Sanka by the boys because she never keeps anyone awake nights.”

“The Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde of the Shore Patrol drinks at the Sirocco bar and doubles up at the Puerto Rican Hotel. You should be more careful. Mr. Hyde. Alcohol and ammunition don’t mix.”

“Lemons Who Should Be Squeezed: That Marine sentry who struck the sailor over the head with his club. He made a strategic approach from the rear which caught his victim completely off guard.”

Naturally, the Cosmic Eye brings plenty of complaints and threats from the people it sees in its crystal all. But none of the threats are carried very far. The injured party soon discovers that the author is a Navy cook named Finbar McCarry, who also happens to be the light heavyweight boxing champion of the fleet.



Lightens His Labors With Humor

Father Cunningham would never be able to hold down his job here if it were not for his sense of humor. He can always manage to get off a crack that makes the sailors see the funny side of the hardships of overseas duty. A machinist with a sad face stopped him in a hangar one day and growled, “I got a beef, Padre—370 bucks back pay and they won’t give it to me.”

“You’re Clancy, aren’t you?” asked the chaplain.

“Yeah.”

“Well, anybody with a name like Clancy who lets that Orangeman in the personnel office do him out of 370 smackeroos gets no sympathy from me. Besides, what are you kicking about? A guy over in the defense battalion was telling me this morning that his wife back in Arkansas just presented him with twins and he hasn’t been home in two years.”

Clancy walked away laughing and feeling much better about life in general.



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