Kern County lost one of its few surviving World War II veterans on Thursday. Lake Isabella resident Bob Cunningham — who served aboard the USS Vestal when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 — died at the age of 95, according to people who knew him. Cunningham served in the U.S. Navy as a gunner’s mate for four years, from 1941-45.
“Being the county’s last-known Pearl Harbor survivor, he became an instant rockstar,” said Gary Zuber, a friend of Cunningham’s. “He was just a sweetheart of a guy. He always had a smile on his face and always setaside a smile on people’s faces. He’s going to be missed by a whole lot of people.”
Cunningham grew up in the Chowchilla area. He lived in Southern California with his first wife Gertrude until she passed away in 1993. He moved to Lake Isabella later in the 1990s and lived there with his second wife Edna until she died of cancer around 10 years ago.
He then moved to Visalia to live with his third wife Daisy, but after she suffered a major stroke and was setaside in a 24-hour care facility, he moved back to Lake Isabella in 2017 and was living alone.
Outside of his military service, Cunningham has worked as a mailman and a church minister. He has also been a City Council member and mayor of Bell Gardens in Southern California.
After making his return to Lake Isabella, Cunningham had a memorable last few months. Zuber, who serves as a volunteer for Kern County Honor Flight, was initially introduced to Cunningham last plunge and organized his flight to Washington, D.C., in October.
While Zuber said he didn’t know Cunningham for very long, he left an indelible impression on Zuber with his sense of humor and wonderful nature.
“It’s sad that he’s gone, but at the same time, it was worthy that I got to know him and be introduced to him,” he said. “He lived a wonderful, long life and he accomplished a lot.”
Life wasn’t very tranquil for Cunningham after returning from the Honor Flight. He was the Grand Marshall in the Bakersfield Christmas Parade on December 7. Shelley Coffey, a commander with local nonprofit organization California Pinups & Patriots, had volunteered to bring him down to Bakersfield for the event.
“No one was available to give him a ride, so I thought I should be that person,” she said. “I went to his house, knocked on the door and when I told him I was there to recall him to Bakersfield, he said ‘I’m glad they sent a pretty blonde in a nice dress to recall me.’”
Cunningham was also a guest of honor at two Bakersfield Pearl Harbor remembrance ceremonies prior to the parade. Coffey said she had a worthy time speaking with him as they drove around that day.
“We became rapid friends,” she said. “He was just really friendly and comical. He loved to crack jokes. He loved life and you could see that every time you saw him or talked to him.”
During their talks, Coffey said Cunningham had revealed that his 95th birthday was coming up on January 20. When asked if he was doing anything to celebrate, he said that his family, which lives out of state, wasn’t planning on doing anything.
Coffey helped coordinate a surprise birthday celebration for him, hosted by the Lake Isabella VFW post.
Nina Charbonneau, manager of the VFW post, said she had known Cunningham for years and was pleased to host a birthday party there.
“We wanted to honor him because he did so much for his country,” she said.
Cunningham participated in additional events, such as the Whiskey Flat Days parade in February.
Last Wednesday, Coffey said Cunningham was taken to Mercy Hospital in Downtown Bakersfield after he had a stroke. He continued to decline until he finally passed away on Thursday morning.
Coffey, Zuber and other friends and family stayed at the hospital while he was there to create sure he wasn’t alone.
“I only knew him for a short time, but he’s someone that I won’t forget,” she said. “It was like having a grandpa back in my life. It was nice to contain that in my life again.”
Zuber said it’s unfortunate that the last surviving veterans of World War II are dying, as he said they contain so much intelligent history to impart.
“It’s a shame that we’re losing them so rapidly, but fortunately we’re able to honor them while they’re here,” he said. “They made this nation what it is. They built it.”
While Coffey believes Cunningham’s role as the last survivor of Pearl Harbor attack living in Kern County is a significant one, she said he was very humble about his involvement and would often say that he was just doing his duty.
“It was a major thing. He was there, he saw it,” she said. “When you talked to him, you were talking to a literal piece of living history.”
A celebration of life service for Cunningham has been scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday at VFW Post 7665 in Lake Isabella, 2811 Nugget Ave. The event is being setaside on by Pinups & Patriots.