After the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Charles Edward Cunningham wanted to leave his position at Glenn L. Martin, Co., in Baltimore, to join the Navy. His skills as a bench mechanic with the company earned Cunningham a deferment from military service -- a deferment he worked hard to avoid.
"It took me three months to get in (the Navy). I had three other fellows I talked into quitting. Those three went in, and I didn't, at first," Cunningham said.
Once he was able to be released from deferment from the company that today is known as Lockheed Martin, Cunningham enlisted in the Navy and reported to Naval Station Norfolk, Va.
"I went in on May 1, 1942, and on May 26, 1942 I graduated as a full-fledged Sailor," Cunningham recounted. "In training is when it was rough. Some men cried -- they missed their family. I was young and single and I had nothing to worry about, but they'd worry about their wife and kids at home. I didn't know about it, but that was rough for some guys."
Because of his background as a bench mechanic, he then reported for training at the DoAll Contour Saw Trade School in Minneapolis, Minn., which had only recently been established to provide intensive training for metalsmiths to meet wartime production requirements.
Cunningham, who received an Honorable Discharge on Nov. 27, 1945 as an Aviation Metalsmith Petty Officer 3rd Class, was among the first Sailors assigned to NAS Patuxent River. He worked on equipment for the installation just after the initial crews cleared farmland to make room for the Navy to establish what then Admiral John S. McCain called in his remarks at its commissioning, "the most needed," Naval Air Station.
Because of his extensive training with the DoAll saw, Cunningham was transferred among squadrons at Pax River for much of the war. Cunningham served here as a member of Squadrons VR-1 and VR-8, before eventually being sent to Pearl Harbor, where he served until the conclusion of the war.
"I'd have rather gone to sea, but they'd never give me a report. They kept transferring me to different departments at Patuxent River," said Cunningham.
On May 24, 2012, Cunningham returned to NAS Patuxent River. At 90 years of age, and mourning the recent loss of his wife, Catherine, to whom he was married for 65 years, revisiting Pax was "my father's one bucket list desire," said Cunningham's son, Glenn, who served as a United States Marine Corps Communications Center Man during the Vietnam War. Father and son visited the installation, where they toured the Joint Strike Fighter hangar, the air traffic control tower, and a barracks for junior Sailors. Cunningham also received a flag flown over the installation and a certificate of appreciation for his military service during a Quarters and Awards ceremony held at the Center Stage Theater. He then agreed to an interview about the time when he was a young man of twenty, and Pax River was brand new.
"I'd repair the damaged 'skin' of planes--just cut a piece (of sheet metal) and put it on," Cunningham remembered. "If it was around a wingtip, it would be tough work. I'd do some riveting. Any time anything new came in our shop, the chief would take me off my job and break me in on that different thing."
When not working on crucial Navy projects, Cunningham and his fellow metalsmiths did side jobs for officers on station.
"They'd come down with furniture or doors. I'd give them something and they'd get me out of trouble. It was good to be good to the officers," Cunningham said. "One other fellow from Martin's I was with the whole time started making jewelry for the officers, and all."
Cunningham's prewar experience at Glenn L. Martin did more for the Navy than just train him in a valuable wartime skill. It also put him in a position to help the Navy save time and money, whether by creating stand-ins for tools that hadn't arrived on station yet or finding common sense solutions to everyday problems.
"Dad was kind of feisty--maybe not by the book. He made a drop hammer to flatten pieces out," said Glenn Cunningham. "They were just kind of ad-libbing until they got the equipment."
"They had flown to New York (for aircraft parts), and I said, 'Why don't you go to Martin's, up the river?' so they did," Cunningham said.
Though the work could be challenging, the Sailors found time and money after hours to relax and have fun like the young men they were. Being stationed at Pax River, he said, was pleasant for Sailors, as the people of Southern Maryland treated them kindly.
"At Norfolk, they hated the Sailors, but you were the boss, up here. The people treated us nice. I didn't have any problems with the people down here," Cunningham said.
Rivets had to go into the airplane skin while cold, and then be heated to expand. To keep them cold, Cunningham stored them in a small refrigerator near his work station.
"One day, the Captain asked me what I had in there, and I didn't want to say anything," Cunningham said. "I was selling Coca-Cola and sandwiches out of it. When we had enough money, we'd go out."
Cunningham and his fellow Sailors saved their money to go to "any bar that had a good band. Tall Timbers, mostly. I'd find a girl who liked to dance, and all. We had a ball, then."
In their off-duty hours, they would also crab, hunt and fish, and invite relatives and friends from Baltimore to come down for a picnic along the river. Sometimes, they'd play slot machines, as well.
"We didn't play them too much, especially compared to the (base construction) workers. They spent a lot of money and you'd come in after and put a dollar in, and if you won you'd get out, fast," said Cunningham.
He and his fellow Sailors also cared for a pair of marmosets they had flown up to Norfolk, Va. from South America.
"The Captain made a cage for them. When we were ready to move up to Pax, the CPO said he wasn't sure Pax would let us take them, but we brought them up. There was barter all over. That was a way of life. It wasn't a hundred percent kosher, but it got things done," Cunningham said. "Everybody in our shop took care of the monkeys. We had nets for insects for them."
Though Charles and Glenn Cunningham acknowledged that a modern, peacetime Navy has less acceptance for some of the things he and his fellow Sailors did to blow off steam nearly 70 years ago, they were struck by the way some things still have not changed. Sailors still work together, Shipmate helping Shipmate, passing down institutional knowledge and getting important work done in service to their greater mission.
"My dad and my family want to thank all of the Navy personnel that have made this visit possible," said Glenn Cunningham. "and to thank you all for your service to our country."