WW II vet celebrates 100th birthday

World War II veteran Vivian Cunningham celebrated her 100th birthday on March 18 at Chick-fil-A in Southern Pines. The restaurant was filled with dignitaries, friends, and birthday cards.

Pat Childers, a retired United States Navy Hospital Corpsman, presented a Military Women’s Memorial to Cunningham.

WW II vet celebrates 100th birthday Friday

Pat Childers, a retired United States Navy Hospital Corpsman, presents a Military Women’s Memorial to Vivian Cunningham March 18, 2023, on her 100th birthday.

The Military Women’s Memorial is the only national memorial dedicated to preserving and promoting the history of women’s military service.

The North Carolina General Assembly sent an honorary plaque, and it was on display with her memorabilia.

The Pentagon sent a handwritten letter by Vice Admiral Lisa Franchetti, who has been the 42nd vice chief of naval operations since Sept. 2, 2022.

Elected officials, Village of Pinehurst Mayor John Strickland and Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Pizzella joined the celebration as longtime friends, along with Judge Steve Bibey.

WW II vet Cunningham celebrates 100th birthday

Village of Pinehurst Mayor John Strickland and Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Pizzella present a plaque honoring centurion Vivian Cunningham on March 18, 2023.

After a Facebook request for birthday cards, Cunningham received 100 by March 10, and by March 18, she received over 300, with classrooms of caring students pledging to send more.

“I joined for patriotism and learned tolerance, patience, to be a good girl, and to be kind,” Cunningham, who has dementia, said about her service in the United States Navy. “I wanted to see the world and saw Madison, Wisconsin,” Cunningham laughed as she talked about joining the Navy and becoming one of the first WAVES. The WAVES is an acronym for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.

“I read Eleanor Roosevelt’s biography, years after the service, and learned women volunteers working like men influenced entry into the military service when Eleanor pointed out how hard they worked to her husband,” Cunningham said.

In July 1942, during World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt opened military service to women as volunteers in noncombat posts.

Cunningham joined the Navy in April 1943 and rose to the rank of Yeoman First Class. She served a full term as an office assistant.

“I was a gopher,” Cunningham said about her secretarial duties.

Cunningham earned the American Campaign Medal and Navy Unit Commendation.

WW II vet Vivian Cunningham celebrates 100th birthday

Vivian Cunningham shares a timeline photo collage at her 100th birthday party March 18, 2023.

The Library of Congress interviewed Cunningham in 1945, and the video is available here.

Cunningham participated in a question-and-answer interview with Sandhills Sentinel on March 17.

Q: In the 1940s, women were given female-type jobs in the military. Did you ever hope to do anything different from secretarial such as work on the lines as a journalist?

A: “No. Did what we were asked. They knew I’d been a secretary and needed someone to take orders.”

Q: Did you endure discrimination in any form during your military service?

A: “No. We learned to keep our mouths shut.”

Q: What is your fondest memory of life during your military service?

A: “Attitude was good. Not rough. Kind. Mostly men, not many women. I didn’t feel any abuse or heckling. I enjoyed it.”

After the service, Cunningham took advantage of the GI Bill and completed a four-year degree in three years at Lake Forest College in Illinois. She met her husband, Bill Cunningham, there, and he had been in Germany fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and had returned to complete his education. They have four sons. All were Eagle Scouts, and one has his own flight school.

WW II veteran celebrates 100th birthday

Bill Cunningham, who lives in Moore County, celebrates his mother, Vivian Cunningham’s, 100th birthday March 18, 2023, at Chick-fil-A in Southern Pines.

For 21 years, Cunningham worked at a Presbyterian nursing home, helping the elderly find homes, and her husband traveled with many different companies.

“Both of my parents were from Finland, and neither were in the military. Dad worked in a mine until the depression and died of tuberculosis. Mom kept us together,” Cunningham said about her formative years with four siblings.

“I want to be remembered as a volunteer and patriotic,” Cunningham said.

Feature photo: Vivian Cunningham celebrates 100th birthday with friends on March 18, 2023, at Chick-fil-A in Southern Pines.

Article and photos by Sandhills Sentinel Journalist Stephanie M. Sellers. Contact her at [email protected]

Resource: Vivian Carmen Cunningham Collection (AFC/2001/001/107991), Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.  

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