On 28 November 1941, Commander Cunningham took command of the naval air station under construction at Wake Island in the Pacific. His command consisted of 500 Marines from the 1st Defense Battalion, 12 F-4F Wildcat aircraft of Marine fighter squadron VMF 211, and various support personnel. There were also more than 1,100 civilian contractors assisting in the construction.
The Japanese attacked Wake Island beginning on 8 December (7 December in Hawaii). For 15 days, the defenders held them off, but eventually, faced with overwhelming odds and concerned over the fate of the civilians on the island, Cunningham was forced to surrender. He and his command spent the next four years in Japanese captivity. During this time, Cunningham attempted to escape twice.
In 1946, Cunningham took command of the seaplane tender Curtiss. From June 1947 until his retirement from the navy as a rear admiral in June 1950, he commanded the Naval Technical Training Center, Memphis, Tennessee. Cunningham died on 3 March 1986 in Memphis.
M. R. Pierce
Cressman, Robert J. The Battle for Wake Island: A Magnificent Fight. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995.; Cunningham, Winfield S., and Lydel Sims. Wake Island Command. Boston: Little, Brown, 1961.; Schultz, Duane. Wake Island: The Heroic, Gallant Fight. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1978.