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Ophelia Cunningham Hopkins 1925 - 2001
Dedicated to Ophelia Cunningham Hopkins; Aunt, Friend and 'fellow' family historian, always kind to me; one whose memory is greatly cherished and whose loss is most deeply felt.
Editors Note: Ophelia Cunningham Hopkins...is the sister of Robert Lyle Cunningham; upon request she furnished us with her memories since she knew him and she received her stories first hand; I have left editing to a minimum to preserve the original as close as possible (1)
Robert Lyle Cunningham, ASN: 38273718; inducted on November 1, 1942 at Fort Sill Oklahoma. He took his basic training at Camp Walters; Mineral Wells Texas. He then was sent to North Africa; while there they asked for volunteers for the Rangers, (they were strictly a volunteer commando type unit; under special forces command).
He was then sent to Sicily; he said, he; '...landed at one end and the regular army landed at the other end...'
They were to sweep the island and meet in the middle.
From Sicily he landed at Anzio; mainland Italy. One battle he fought in was in the hills above Messina Italy. The Rangers were pinned down for three days in a triangle of crossfire of German Machine Guns. Somehow, one of them crawled out and got back to the lines and they sent relief. (Chiunzi Pass)
Next they were ordered into Cisterna Italy; thought to be a deserted town. They had to cross a bridge to get into town.
The 1st and 3rd Battalion was to go in first; and raise all the hell they could; then the 4th would come up in relief. They took with them just what could be carried; rifles, side arms, etc.
When they got to the middle of town the Germans came out of every house, barn, etc.; supported by a tank battalion.
He said; '...that they managed to capture some of the tanks...'
But, in the meantime the 4th was cutoff at the bridge; so the Rangers called for artillery. That took care of the tanks they had captured.
He said; '...he was in a barn with either 3 or 6 men; all that was left of his squad and they were out of ammunition...' He was a Sgt. at the time.
The Germans ran a tank up to the door of the barn; and it was either surrender or be run over with the tank. They were captured as they had nothing to fight with.
(Editors Note: The prisoners were moved to Rome and I have moved that part of the story to here)
The Rangers were moved to Rome and marched through the streets; just to show the Italians what the Germans had captured. He said the Italians threw garbage on them, slop-pots and any filthy thing they could find; they would even run up and spit in their faces, (I really believe he hated the Italians more than the Germans).
There was an article in Life magazine that said (that few of the Rangers got back to our lines) the rest were captured or killed. (Reports say 6)
He said; '...The Germans held them in a small town in Italy; in a big barn for three days without food and water...they had one canteen of water which they stole from the Germans...at this time his hair turned completely white...and that it turned overnight...he was asleep and woke himself up calling; "Mama!" and one of the guys said; 'what happened to your hair!"
When he got to where he could look; he was white-headed; and when he came home he kept his hair real short so it wouldn't show...
As side interest; let me tell you this...Mama was on the couch resting on January 3rd...Lyle was captured on January 1st; she was alone and vowed she was not asleep and she said she heard Lyle calling her so plain that she got up and went to the door to let him in. She was almost in hysterics when the rest of us got home.
(Editors note: All the brothers and sisters of this family gave me this story first hand. Lyle's Mom; Zadia Cunningham was so upset when the children arrived home that she sent her husband Bob to town to see if there was a message from Lyle...or a telegram; she believed he had been killed).
When Lyle came home they compared notes and that happened the same day that he woke calling her name. Strange things do happen.
On the fourth day of captivity they were loaded on a train bound for Germany. They were loaded in cattle cars; no food, no water...
Lyle said; '...Somewhere along the line the train was being strafed by American planes...they were off loaded into a big field...and tried to think of some way to stop the planes...they formed a big P - O - W out there in the middle of the field...the planes made another run real low at them and all at once just wagged their wings and left...'
This incident was also reported in the Daily Oklahoman; although at the time we had no idea he was a part of it.
The train took them to Germany; and if I remember right to Northern Germany; or at least into the mountains or where there were lots of forests.
Lyle said; '...they were detailed to cut wood...'
He mentioned how cold it was and about all the snow and ice. He said they would have starved if it hadn't been for cabbage; the Germans let them have all of it that they could use. He said they kept a pot boiling all the time.
We were allowed to send packages; but they had to be a certain size and just so many pounds (I have forgotten the size and weight).
If they weighed even an ounce over; then they would be sent back. We could send 1/4 pound of sugar, 1/4 pound of coffee, 6 or 8 oz. of Chocolate, candy (two or three bars) chewing gum, writing material, stamps and socks. The packages were supposedly delivered by the International Red Cross. We sent several.
He said he only got one; and all it had in it was an ink-pen. We had a certain kind of paper to write on (I am sending you a sample). He had a prisoner of war number different from his Army Serial Number.
He was at two different camps; (besides Stalag IIB) and if I remember right, one was Stalag 17 and Stalag 6. I think the Stalag 17 was the one in the mountains.
Near the end of the War the Germans marched them around in circles to keep them from being liberated. Lyle said it amounted to more than 300 miles.
During the war he said; '...Eva Braun; Hitlers girl friend came into the camp and toured...the Germans tried to make them line up for her visit; but, when the Rangers found out who she was; they went into the barracks and wouldn't come out...'
The POW's were allowed to write home once a month and every once in a while allowed to send a short-wave message.
The Germans would also use their names in propaganda messages; but we could always tell if the message was sent by the Germans or Lyle. If the Germans sent it...it was signed Robert or Bob; but if he sent it; then it was signed Lyle...Funny they never noticed that fact; isn't it...
When we first realized something had happened to the Lyle and the Rangers; Mama was listening to the news at noon on the radio. They said the 1st and 3rd Ranger had been completely wiped out...
We finally got word from the Government that he was Missing In Action.
We heard nothing else for FIVE months and Mama went to the post office and there was a letter from him. The next day Josephine received another one.
In a day or two the Government notified us that a letter had been intercepted; so they were assuming he was a POW.
It was during this time that Bud was killed in Belgium (Bud Meyerhoffen Josephine's Husband)...When Lyle came home he said he knew something had happened because we just quit mentioning Bud in any of our letters.
He said; '...when they were captured that all they would tell the Germans was rank, name and serial number. When they went into battle they could not carry identification of any kind; not even their dog-tags...the way the Germans finally identified them was one of the guys went against orders and burned 3rd Rangers into the leather sweat band of his helmet...'
Lyle said; '...The German Officer who captured them was the same one that had pinned them down in the hills of Messina...'
Lyle said that the Germans finally quit marching them around Germany and they were back in camp; three days before the war ended...The Germans took the Guards and then left...the prisoners were left to fend for themselves...
(Editors Note: Another version of this story is; the Germans left in the middle of the night; evidently aware of the close proximity of Patton's or Allied Forces)
Lyle and a few others just wandered around trying to decide where to go and wound up hole-ing up in a barn. On the 3rd day they saw tanks coming in; when the tanks got to them it was a group of Russian Tanks and all the personnel were Women.
The Russians fed them and took them to the American Lines.
Lyle said; he was sent to France for a short time; and then on to England to a hospital or rest area. He was kept there for 60 days; I think. He came home on May 19 -20 1945.
Our neighbor called Mama to the phone and he was at Hobart Oklahoma... wanting for someone to come after him.
He had been home several days when we again heard from the Government stating that he had been Liberated and would be sent home in the near future.
When he had landed in New York; the Army gave him $10 and a bus ticket home.
He had a 30 Day leave; then they sent him to Hot Springs Arkansas for a short time; they had turned some of the resorts into rest areas. Then he went to Camp Robinson at Little Rock; from there to Camp Chaffee.
All this time they were telling him they had lost his records and were not even giving him his pay check. They would allow him to draw $10.00 per month.
They finally broke over and checked with special services (or special forces) after he cussed them out awhile.
He had already been discharged and had been home for quite sometime before the government finally sent him his back pay! He was discharged 12 Oct 1945; with the rank of Staff Sergeant...
His citations were: Presidential Unit Citation, Four Bronze Battle Stars, Combat Infantry Badge, European Theater Ribbon, Good Conduct Ribbon; and their may have been more but that is all I have any record of...
I don't remember when or how I found out; but I learned that Lyle was discharged from the Army with only a year to live and six months if he drank heavily...he admitted he had burned his papers so that Mama and Daddy didn't find out...
(Editors Note: Though I have no supporting evidence; interviews with several family members indicate that Lyle had contracted Leukemia while a POW and there is one mention in a letter where he contracted Malaria either in North Africa or in Sicily and I believe that he adapted his story about his hair turning white to cover-up either or both illnesses; and in-fact a letter surfaced in which Lyle mentions his hair as 'almost grey' long before the family myth began).
He was in the Rangers with a buddy; Aubrey Daniel's (Aubra) of Cheyenne Oklahoma (Leedy); both were captured together. I don't know if he is still living or not; Lyle called him 'Big Daniel's'.
Lyle was in the American Legion at Granite; they are the ones that got the headstone; they just called Daddy to come to the Depot one morning to pick it up. Daddy went to Cheyenne and set it up himself...
I Love You Much,
(signed) Aunt Ophelia
Editors Note: Much of this material has been duplicated in talks with all of the brothers and sisters of Lyle Cunningham. As supporting evidence; all interviews were conducted at random time-periods and each one not having knowledge of what the other said. There were no stories which varied significantly from the above. Except that at least two family sources proved to be highly unreliable sources of historical fact. That input has been omitted except by happen-stance where it coincided with the other family members stories. Those histories fall in the catagory of family myth.
An interesting aside is some of the research Bruce White/my nephew has conducted in the areas of family myth.
Ophelia Hopkins was a rare exception in the family tree. She was one of those talented natural writers who could say things I could only inadequately repeat. In verifying information; her account stood the strongest test for credibility; dates, time, place and historical accuracy without knowledge of the Stalag IIB Reports, The Leavenworth Papers or later histories of Darby Rangers. BP/Ed
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(1) F.R. Price History Collection