History

This castaway airman helped map the entire world

A sandy white beach. Swaying palm trees. Cocktails made from coconut juice.


As frigid air and snowstorms whip across most of the U.S., service members may dream of trading their current duty station for an exotic Pacific paradise.

But they might want to think again, according to Bob Cunningham, a former Air Force radar operator whose first duty station was a tiny, oblong blister of land in the South China Sea. He knows it as North Danger Island.

Airman 2nd Class Bob 'Red' Cunningham, 1374th Mapping and Charting Squadron, sits near his footlocker and reads a magazine during his six-month assignment on North Danger Island in 1956. The 22-year old radar operator and his three teammates lived in a tent and shared the tiny island in the South China Sea with a six-man Air Force radio relay station team. (Courtesy photo Bob Cunningham)

For six months in 1956, Cunningham lived on a remote knob approximately 2,000 feet long and 850 feet wide in the Spratly Islands group located midway between the Philippine Islands and Vietnam. His home was a canvas tent and he manned radio and radar equipment for a secret Air Force project mapping the earth.

The mission was an aerial electronic geodetic survey. Specially equipped aircraft flew grid patterns and triangulated electromagnetic pulses sent between temporary ground stations hundreds of miles apart. The data, computed into highly accurate coordinates, would eventually provide targeting information for intercontinental ballistic missile development.

It was a 'million dollar experience' that he wouldn't give two cents to repeat, Cunningham jokes today.

Not that it wasn't an adventure, he admits.

Cunningham's four-man team and all its equipment was helicoptered to the island from the deck of a Landing Ship, Tank (LST), along with the drinking water, fuel and rations the men would need to survive. Resupply occurred every 4-6 weeks by helicopter, supplemented by occasional parachute drops. A radio relay team of six Airmen had already established itself on the island and shared the same copse of trees.

"I was 22 years old. I was the kid on the island so it was a real experience," Cunningham remembers. "I didn't have a lot of sophistication psychologically, and that was a real psychological test for human beings, to be going like that."

Also Read: Green Beret writes about secret Cold War mission

He was an Airman 2nd Class, a two-striper, with just over a year of service in the Air Force and some college education. His sergeants had seen combat during World War II and were wise to what the isolated team would endure. Their ingenuity, humor and direct leadership kept young Cunningham and the others on the island from mentally cracking.

To keep a low profile, the Airmen were ordered to stow their uniforms and wear civilian shorts and sneakers, sandals and cowboy hats instead.

The men also kept their pistols and M-1 Garand rifles ready, knowing that pirates and other possible threats roamed the waters surrounding them.

"The Chinese nationalists came by with a gun boat. A big, long vessel. Military. Chinese Navy," Cunningham said. "And they had this big three-inch cannon on the front on a turret, and they swung that baby in toward our island, and they had some machine gun turrets, and pretty soon we saw boats come over the edge and some officers got on that and they came in to see who we were and what we were doing."

The Airmen placed palm fronds along the beach to spell out U-S-A-F. The gunboat crew was satisfied and the standoff ended.

On another occasion, Okinawan fishermen came ashore to trade their fish for drinking water.

"They saw our 50-foot antenna that we put up for our radar set, our pulse radio, and so they were curious," Cunningham said. "They came onboard and they were quite friendly."

Cunningham pumps water from an old well on North Danger Island in 1956. The Airmen only used this for laundry and washing. Drinking water was delivered in 55-gallon barrels. (Courtesy photo Bob Cunningham)

But visitors were the exception. Day after day, interaction was limited to within the tiny community of Airmen.

A feud between two staff sergeants took a bad turn when one threatened to kill the other.

Cunningham's technical sergeant knew he had to step in and confront the enraged man. But first he warned Cunningham and the other radar operator that the situation could explode and that they might have to use their weapons.

"He said, 'I'm calling him in here, I'm going to present this to him, our concern,'" Cunningham recalled. "'If he gets up and breaks like I've seen a guy do it, he'll run right over to the ground power tent where those guys live and he'll just start shooting people.'"

Fortunately, there was no violence and the conflict was resolved.

"We had to stay up around the clock for a day or so to see what would happen in case we had to call for an SA-16 (amphibious flying boat) to come out with Air Police and come in and capture this guy, and we're going to have to tie him up to a palm tree or something," Cunningham said. "We didn't know what was going to go on."

The veteran sergeants kept up morale in other ways.

Read Also: That time Americans demanded the Coast Guard rescue the cast of Gilligan's Island

They improved the camp with funny signs, hand-made furniture and a wind-driven water pump. They cooked sea turtles for the men. And they improvised a way to make alcohol from coconut juice and cake mix.

Cunningham remembers the technical sergeant busy at his distillery 'making moonshine.' When the sergeant was asked why he was wearing his pistol, he replied that revenuers might come through and he couldn't be interrupted.

That sense of humor was "what you really needed on a place like that to keep from cracking up," Cunningham said.

For recreation, Cunningham would walk around the island and photograph the thousands of birds it attracted. He also tried diving off the reef once and became terrified by the absolute darkness.

"I opened up my eyes and it scared the bejeepers out of me," he said. "It was total black. I couldn't see anything. I got so danged scared, I came up and I got off and I got back to that reef and I never went back again."

Cunningham points to the camp on 'North Danger Island' where he lived and worked as a radar operator for six months in 1956 during an Air Force project mapping the earth. (Air Force photo by Josh Turner)

In the final month, he and the sergeant were the only humans left on the island. Two members of his team were evacuated. The radio relay team was relocated, taking their noisy generator with them. For the two men remaining, the silence at night was now 'spooky' – a lone coconut dropping from a tree was enough to send them scrambling for their weapons.

Cunningham's experience on the reef forever changed how he relates to other people.

"I have an expression," he said. "'This guy sounds like a North Danger kind of guy,' meaning somebody compatible, smart, you can get along with him, he's got a good temper. Or this guy, I would not want to be with him on North Danger."

Articles

Why I'm thrilled Brie Larson will play Captain Marvel

Look, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is really lighting my fires when it comes to their female superheroes.

When Marvel Studios announced they would be bringing Captain Marvel to the big screen, I was thrilled. I was also immediately invested and my expectations shot through the roof.

Keep reading... Show less
Articles

How R. Lee Ermey's Hollywood break is an inspiration to us all

While there have been many outstanding actors and celebrities who have raised their right hand, there has never been a veteran who could finger point his way to the top of Hollywood stardom quite like the late great Gunnery Sergeant R. Lee Ermey.

Keep reading... Show less
History

This is how American pilots used drop tanks as bombs during WWII

If you pay attention, you might sometimes see long, cigar-shaped pods firmly attached to the undersides of classic fighter and attack aircraft, sometimes with unit markings on them.

Known as "drop tanks," these simple devices extend the range of the aircraft they're hooked up to by carrying extra usable fuel. Back during World War II, however, attack pilots found a secondary use for drop tanks as improvised bombs, used to bombard enemy ground positions.

Keep reading... Show less

The hilarious ways Chinese police are combating jaywalkers

China is so desperate to stop jaywalkers it has turned to spraying them with water.

In Daye, in the central Hubei province, one pedestrian crossing has had a number of bright yellow bollards installed that spray wayward pedestrians' feet with water mist.

Keep reading... Show less
Entertainment

7 of the greatest songs every veteran knows

No matter the setting, there's always a song or two that can get the party going in the right direction. Military parties are no different. These 7 songs are so full of energy and easy to song along with that they'll help you get a bar full of military folks sangin' and drankin' immediately.

Keep reading... Show less

Chinese and Australian warships had a standoff in the South China Sea

Three of Australia's warships were "challenged" by the Chinese navy in the South China Sea early April, 2018, according to an ABC report.

Defense sources told ABC that Australia's navy was en route to Vietnam when it encountered polite but "robust" challenges from the People's Liberation Army, but the specific nature of the challenges is not described. HMAS Toowoomba had departed from Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, while HMAS Anzac and HMAS Success travelled through the South China Sea after leaving the Philippines.

Keep reading... Show less
Lists

8 types of recruits you'll meet in Marine Corps boot camp

The Marine Corps is filled with individuals from all walks of life. Regardless of where you came from, every single person who bears the title of United States Marine started out at either the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, California or the one at Parris Island, South Carolina.

Keep reading... Show less
GEAR & TECH

These are the aircraft used by the Army's premier special ops aviation unit

Some know them as Task Force Brown, others fear them as thunderous ghosts who approach in the darkest hours of the night. To the public, they're the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), but to the US Army and the special operations community, they're known only as the legendary Night Stalkers.

Keep reading... Show less