30 Apr 2005
WELLS ELDON CUNNINGHAM
Captain, U.S. Army Special Forces
Captain Cunningham was the Commanding Officer of Detachment B-25's "A" Team of Det A-253 (Duc Co), B Co, 5th SF Grp in South Vietnam. A native of St. Joseph, Missouri, he was killed during hostile action on August 17, 1966.
11/19/39 - 8/17/66
Wells Cunningham graduated from the University of Missouri in 1961. Wells was a member of Williams House, a section of a campus dormitory that housed about sixty male students. The men of Williams House were a well organized and fraternal group. Many of them, who are in their sixties now, have stayed in touch through the years. They remember Wells Cunningham. These are their comments:
Wells and I were only in Williams House together one semester. I started college in the middle of a school year, only a couple of months after my discharge from a four year tour in the Navy. I moved into Williams House in January, 1961 as a first semester freshman. Wells was a last semester senior. I was loaded down with difficult classes, plus I had a job. I was struggling. I needed help. Wells had a reputation as someone who was good in English and I sought him out for help with my English papers. I survived that English class because of Wells Cunningham.
Wells was heavily involved with the ROTC program and was, in fact, the top officer of the Army Company that year. Wells loved all things military. I think that was one reason he befriended me, because I had already served in the military. He didn't care anything at all about the Navy, because he was a dedicated Army man. But stories about military organization and military procedure were of great interest to him.
Wells knew he would become an officer in the Army after graduation, and because of his success within the ROTC program, he knew he would probably be accorded the opportunity to go to any specialized military school he desired. He also knew he would be sent to Vietnam. He was ready for all of it, and wanted it all.
The semester ended, the summer passed, and the next school year started. I gave no thought to Wells Cunningham what-so-ever. Not immediately anyway, until one day while I was standing out in front of Williams House, and this magnificently dressed Army officer with a Green Beret, gold braid, and spit shined boots walked up the steps. He didn't look like Wells, but it was Wells. He looked tough, which was a major departure from his college days. He had gained weight, and it was all muscle. Wells was home on a furlough and had come to Mizzou to visit the campus for a day or two. He probably wanted to show off a bit, and who could blame him. Some of us gathered in a room and listened to his stories. They were exciting stories, about jungle warfare school, ranger school, jump school, etc. It seemed he had gone to every school the Army had.
Wells was headed for Vietnam immediately after the furlough was over. He figured he would be in combat soon after arriving in Vietnam, and he seemed to be genuinely excited about the prospect. Four years later, in 1966, he was killed, which I speculate must have been his second tour of duty in Vietnam. That probably means he volunteered for a second tour. It was said that he was killed trying to help one of his men, the action of a genuine hero. Where would he be today if he had survived? On the Joint Chiefs of Staff? Probably! I only knew him for a short time, but he was one of those impressive people you never forget.
Wells Cunningham was my friend. He loved to strum his guitar and compose new lyrics to well-known songs. Frequently I hear "Calculus Woman" playing in my head. He was gung-ho when gung-ho wasn't cool, but that didn't bother him. He loved the military and knew from day-one where he would go and why. Even today, the memory of him brings tears to my eyes. Maybe the nation gained something by his service, but I know the nation lost something from his death. His brand of humor and dedication is a rare gift. I'll think of him often, especially on Memorial Day.
I once watched Wells sit down to an old portable manual typewriter, slip in a clean sheet of paper and ghost author a paper that received an "A" grade. He was smart and talented. He played guitar with a flamingo style with a finger on each string. He could and did play solo stuff and entertain people for hours, but I do not think he could read music. If he did not know a tune he would ask you to sing it for him. By the second line he was playing cords with you, and on the second verse he was playing the melody. On the third verse he played the melody with an accompaniment in his own style of play, picking the strings with his fingers rather than just strumming cords. And oh yes, he knew more songs and more verses to them than anyone else. For many of the goodies he knew three sets of verses; clean, bawdy, and gross; a tradition that was carried on long after Wells graduated and left Williams House. I also remember the "chrome dome", the shiny steel helmet he loved to wear to ROTC classes. I think it had to do with the Drill Team.
After leaving Missouri University I joined the Air Force. Almost half of the guys in my Flight Training Class died in Vietnam, but when asked what the biggest loss of Vietnam was my answer has always been, Wells Cunningham.
A minister once told me that we are entitled to know only a half dozen really smart people in our life. I have my list, and Wells is on it. His friends from Williams House, the University of Missouri, the State of Missouri, the United States and the US Army lost big time when we lost Wells Cunningham.
Wells was the elected Governor of Williams house when I arrived in August 1960. He was a good house leader, a good student and big into ROTC, but it is all the fun stuff that I remember. Wells played the guitar and led the music at parties. He taught me the words and melodies to so many of the wonderful Williams House songs, the bawdy ones. Up to that time I didn't know about what "freshman never eat".
I remember the very first day I arrived. Wells led a house meeting and then the older guys took us to The Stables and I had my first "cold one". I was a green freshman! Wells was one of the fellows I looked up to. I remember being taught the 3-man blanket lift, a very useful thing to know. Once when I was walking by Wells dorm room some other poor freshman was having his drawers filled with shaving cream, but I was able to avoid it. I have told the story countless times.
Wells had the ability to hypnotize. I was present for one event in which he put one of the guys under and convinced him that his out of town girl friend had arrived for a visit. He used me as "the girl friend" and the guy started to put his arms around me when Wells snapped his fingers. We all had a good laugh.
When Wells came to visit the campus after Army Ranger training he told us how he had hurt his ankle during the training and rather than quit and start over in the next class, he had it taped up and completed his training. He was tough, and dedicated. I remember asking him to show us how his hands were a dangerous weapon and he jokingly said he'd have to kill me to do it.
I seem to remember all the corny stuff, but he was a serious man living at a very serious time. He missed so much that we have all lived through. How sad. I think of him often.
I remember Wells Cunningham very clearly. He and I both lived on the first floor of Williams House one year. I remember his amazing musical ability with the guitar and his unique style of singing and playing. He was a high ranking officer in ROTC. Military life was his total goal, nothing else. He started college as an Engineering major, but switched to Business after one year. He sold his physics book to me and I still have it.
I saw him the year when he returned from Army training and he was excited to get on with it. I have seen his name on the Memorial Wall in D.C. Some people you just don't forget.
Wells was one of the first people I met when I entered the University of Missouri in fall 1957. We were both in College Algebra and sat next to one another. I'm sure he got an "A" (he was in Engineering School at that point); I received my only college "D". As a country-bumpkin with a weak math background, I vividly remember seeing his slide-rule and wondering what it was! After that class, we went our separate ways, only to rendezvous a year or so later in Williams House. Wells was already there, and was one of the house leaders who later became the Governor.
Williams House specialized in wild parties, quick wits, sports, and believe or not, in academics. Wells's strong points were a quick wit, academics and ROTC. He also liked to party, but remained on the fringes of the rowdy stuff. Williams House stands out as a successful organization in terms of integrating and including everyone, no matter how weird (I can name several) or how straight-arrow (like Wells). I have a clear memory of Williams House sponsoring an entry in one of Mizzou's many "queen" competitions, which required some kind of skit to be performed in Jesse Hall auditorium. Wells was the center of it, with guitar blaring to "Mostly Martha," until the amplifier and microphone failed, after which the audience probably couldn't hear us beyond the fourth row. I remember Wells singing and strumming, and laughing at our ridiculous situation.
And I do remember his return to Williams House a couple of years later, complete with uniform, beret, swashbuckling moustache, and hard as a rock ... and also more serious. I was gung-ho myself in those years. I recall being somewhat non-plussed by Wells's exaggerated bravado and claims that he could destroy each of us with one karate blow, but also wise enough not to test it.
Fast forward to 1966. I was living with my brother studying for my PhD and getting ready for my final year of school. I was doing some reading when the ABC news-on-the-hour came on, and one of the stories was an on-site report about a Green Beret captain who had gone back into the Vietnamese jungle to retrieve one of his men, and who had just been killed in the process. The sergeant, who was crying while extolling the virtues of his commander, said that Captain Wells Cunningham was a soldiers' soldier, that his men loved him, and that when they brought him out of the bush he had a smile on his face. I remember standing bolt upright, shocked and feeling dizzy hearing this on network news.
I hope that our generation, in all countries, can bequeath more to the next generation than the exaggerated national sentiments that often lead to wars, and claims idealists like Wells Cunningham, who are always the first to volunteer.
Wells Cunningham is front row center,
denoting his high position in the Army ROTC
Tiger Battery at the University of Missouri.
Scabbard and Blade was and is an all-service
military honorary society. Representative of his position
with the organization, Wells Cunningham is front and center.
Wells Cunningham, far right,
with two Williams House buddies,
ready for a party.
on behalf of Wells's many friends.