While many movies have been made and many books written about the role of Tin Can Destroyers in World War 2, much less publicity has been given to the invaluable role US Navy destroyers served during the Korean War. As more Korean War Navy veterans begin to leave us, it is vital that their heroic stories be told just the same. One such story is of a Korean War gunfighter – the USS Alfred A Cunningham (DD-752). Its intense running gunfight with Korean War shore batteries on September 19, 1952 resulted in casualties and illustrated the dangerous missions that US Navy destroyers were required to perform in support of Korean War military operations. Be it rescuing downed airmen or providing naval bombardment support, destroyers such as the USS Alfred A Cunningham were often required to maneuver directly into harm’s way.
Battle Hardened – The USS Alfred A Cunningham’s Gun Battles during the Korean War
Before it became a Korean War gunfighter – the USS Alfred A Cunningham was one of many Allen M Sumner class destroyers to see battle action during World War II. The USS Alfred A Cunningham helped support air operations against Wake Island, and also supported operations during the Okinawa campaign. After World War II, many destroyers were decommissioned, and the Alfred A Cunningham was no exception. However, this deactivation was short-lived, as the Korean War quickly followed, and once again depended on the US Navy to serve a critical role in the military response of the United States and other UN nations. Thus, in October 1950, the USS Alfred A Cunningham was once again called upon by the Navy to bring its guns to a fight.
Thrown into Battle
It didn’t take long for the USS Alfred A Cunningham to fire its guns in anger in support of Korean War operations. On February 18, 1951, after being released from its plane guard (“bird dog”) station, USS Alfred A Cunningham was authorized to seek and destroy targets of opportunity near Tanchon, Korea. Targets destroyed included railroad lines, tunnels and other infrastructure. This mission was a perfect illustration of the multiple roles destroyers were to play during the Korean War, and how they often operated very closely to the Korean coastline in support of those missions.
Birth of a Bloodied Korean War Gunfighter – The USS Alfred A Cunningham on September 19, 1952
After a trip back to the United States Pacific Coast in late 1951, the USS Alfred A Cunningham returned to the Korean theater of naval operations in spring of 1952. Over the course of many months, she would continue to perform valuable screening, plane guard and shore bombardment operations as requested. However, on September 19, 1952 her Korean War legend as a true gunfighter would be cemented. An excerpt from the Dictionary of American Fighting Ships entry for the USS Alfred A Cunningham gives an excellent account of the battle that enfolded:
“On 19 September, the destroyer was operating in Task Element 95.22 (the “Songjin Element”) to prevent the movement of trains along the railroad at that point by preventing clearance of the roadbed and repair during the day, and destroying trains at night. Patrolling some 6,000 yards off the beach at about 1340, Alfred A. Cunningham fired on workers she had seen in that vicinity. A little over an hour later, detecting workmen at a tunnel, the destroyer stood in toward the shoreline, turning slowly to starboard to take a northeasterly course to fire on the workmen at the tunnel mouth.
At that point, at least three enemy guns opened fire on the ship. The first salvo was a direct hit, on the main deck, starboard side; several pieces of shrapnel penetrated the shield of mount 51 and wounded three of the mount’s crew. Two air bursts followed in quick succession, one on either side of the bridge. Within two minutes time, the North Korean guns had registered four more direct hits and at least seven air bursts near the ship.
One shell penetrated into the forward fire room, destroying a forced-draft blower; shrapnel holed a nearby bulkhead. Another shell struck a depth charge on the forward K-gun, blowing the charge apart and scattering burning TNT as far aft as the fantail; shrapnel from this hit set another depth charge afire, and ruptured four others. The fourth hit on the starboard side, two feet below the main deck; shrapnel from this hit caused extensive damage to the motor whaleboat. The last shell to hit struck about two feet below the waterline, but did not penetrate. The air bursts near the bridge rendered the SG radar inoperative.
Immediately, one of the ship’s 3-inch mounts opened up to return the shore battery’s fire, expending both hoppers full (ten rounds); these rounds landed in the target area but did not slow the enemy’s rate of fire.
With Alfred A. Cunningham, under fire, Lt. Frederick F. Palmer, USNR, the officer of the deck, sounded the general alarm, ordered the rudder shifted to left full, rang up the port engine back emergency full, starboard engine ahead flank, in order to come left and open the range.
Although mount 53 had reported a fire on the starboard K-guns, the blast from the guns of that mount and the nearby 3-inch mount, 34, prevented a repair party from approaching the blaze from that angle. Men from another damage control party got to the fire and battled the blaze, while as the ship sped to seaward, weaving but keeping at least one main battery mount bearing on the target guns at all times.
As the ship opened the range to 9,000 yards and worked up to 26.5 knots, Ens. Charles E. Dennis, USNR; Chief Torpedoman William J. Bohrman; and Electrician’s Mate 2d Class Victor J. Leonard manhandled one burning depth charge over the side, performing this task at great personal risk while the fire on the K-guns was being brought under control. All three men were later recommended for the award of the Bronze Star.
Having suffered 13 men wounded, principally to shrapnel, Alfred A. Cunningham pulled out of range and stood down from general quarters, steering toward Yang Do Island to receive medical assistance from HMS Charity. After emergency repairs, Alfred A. Cunningham was able to continue her combat operations. Alfred A. Cunningham ultimately returned to the United States and reached her new home port, Long Beach, Calif., on 6 November.”
Throughout the intense chaos of the gun battle, stories of heroism and personal sacrifice shown through. The brave sailors of the USS Alfred A Cunningham continued to bring the fight to the enemy throughout, while doing their bravest duty to prevent further casualties on their ship.
The Gunfighter Lives On
In a testament to the continued skill and capabilities of the US Navy and American shipbuilding companies, the USS Alfred A Cunningham was fully repaired and returned to the WestPac theater in 1953 to continue its valuable support role. Upon the cessation of hostilities in Korea, she engaged in many valuable joint training exercises with Pacific partner navies. When the Vietnam War erupted, she once again put on her holsters and returned to her familiar gunfighting role off the coast of Vietnam, providing shore bombardment duties and plane guard duties over the course of many deployments from 1965 until her decommissioning in 1971.
During her entire service, the USS Alfred A Cunningham received one battle star for World War II service, six battle stars for Korean War service, and seven battle stars for Vietnam War service.
For a complete and detailed history of the USS Alfred A Cunningham (DD-752) you can read the full Dictionary of American Fighting Ships entry here.