Thomas Fire victim attends Pearl Harbor ceremony with veteran grandpa

Honoring Kern County's last Pearl Harbor survivor, Bob Cunningham

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. - Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor changed history 76 years ago. Lake Isabella resident Bob Cunningham was only 17 years old and fresh in the Navy when Japan attacked.

Cunningham, now 94, is Kern County's last Pearl Harbor survivor.

On Thursday, dozens gathered to hear Cunningham's story at Day of Remembrance ceremonies around town, and there was a special guest dealing with her own heartbreak.

Cunningham's granddaughter, Samantha Wells Zuniga, lost her home on Dec. 5 in the Thomas Fire burning in Ventura County. 

Still, Zuniga made the drive to surprise her grandpa, along with her cousins. 

"My grandfather was told that I couldn't be here today because my house burned down," said Zuniga. "And honestly, where else do I have to be? This is the only place I could be. And this is the only thing that has made me feel better." 

Most of what Zuniga owned was taken in the blaze. Yet, Zuniga still followed through with the plans she had coordinated with her cousins.

On Dec. 7 1941, Cunningham's ship , the USS Vestal, was tied along to the USS Arizona.

Cunningham and his shipmates abandoned the ship after their captain was blown into the water. 

However, after all the years Cunningham continues to recall the moments of encountering his captain in the waters where oil from the ships was leaking.

"I met him when we were going down," said Cunningham. "He said, 'Where you guys going?' We said, 'We had orders to abandon ship.' He said, 'Abandon ship? Hell, get back aboard. We're getting underway.' And he did get it underway. Put the ship over in shallow water where it sunk in about 20 feet of water instead of next to the Arizona."

Bob Cunningham's story continues to be written. On Thursday night, he served as the grand marshal of the 35th annual Bakersfield Christmas Parade.

Click here to donate to Samantha's gofundme page.

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