WARRENTON, Va. — If it weren’t for the car accident earlier this summer, Korean War veterans Jim Cunningham and Don McIntyre would never have found each other again.
“God was in it from the get-go,” said Cunningham, 86, a Spotsylvania County resident.
The two met up for coffee last weekend at the Warrenton home of McIntyre’s daughter. It was the first time they’d seen each other in 63 years.
In 1953, Cunningham and McIntyre, who were 23 and 20 at the time, served together with Marine Aircraft Group 12 at airfield K-6 in Pyeongtaek, South Korea. They were in the motor transport pool — Cunningham was a dispatcher and McIntyre was a driver. Their job was to collect downed aircraft from all over the country and take the wreckage to Inchon, where it would be shipped to Japan to be rebuilt.
Their tour lasted 14 months and when it was over they went their separate ways. They’d talked about starting a trucking company together, but life got in the way. McIntyre got a job driving a truck, married the truck owner’s daughter and then bought the business. Cunningham joined the Air Force, retired from the service in 1972 and became a Baptist preacher.
Half a century passed. But Cunningham kept looking for his friend.
“I’m not computer-literate,” he said. “I knew he was in the moving business, so I kept looking for his trucks.”
One day in July, he decided that he wanted to plant some sweet corn. He borrowed a corn planter from a friend and started to drive it home, but he unintentionally hit a car that was parked on the right side of State Route 208.
Virginia State Trooper Greg Finch responded to the accident. It was a hot day and he invited Cunningham to come and sit in his car while he wrote up the citation.
“We got to talking. It took him an hour and 15 minutes to write up the ticket,” Cunningham said.
During the conversation, Cunningham mentioned that he’d served in Korea.
“I told him I had a real good friend in Korea and I was still looking for him,” Cunningham said. “I told him his name was Don McIntyre. He said, ‘I know Don McIntyre!’ ”
Finch told Cunningham that his father lived one mile down the road from a Don McIntyre in Bath, N.Y.
“I said, ‘It’s probably not the same Don,’ ” Cunningham said. “He said, ‘Let me call my Dad.’ ”
Finch called his father and his father called McIntyre to ask if he knew a Jim Cunningham. The first thing McIntyre said was, “Of course I know Jim!”
The two talked on the phone.
“I asked him, ‘Do you still have blond hair and a crew cut?’ ” McIntyre said.
Cunningham does still have the crew cut, but it’s white now.
So the two arranged to meet at the Warrenton home of McIntyre’s daughter. McIntyre’s wife accompanied him on the trip from their New York home.
“I’ve been on pins and needles since I got the word he was coming,” said Cunningham, a widower and father of a daughter and two sons. “My family don’t want me to drive, but I told them I was driving an hour to see Don.”
McIntyre said he was anxious to get to Virginia to see his old friend and worried that Cunningham wouldn’t recognize him.
“But I guess I haven’t changed that much,” he joked.
Both the men enlisted in the Marine Corps as soon as they were old enough, because the Korean War was going on and they thought it was their duty to serve.
“We live in a country with a lot of problems, but it is the best country in the world,” Cunningham said. “Whatever we have to do to defend it, we should do.”
In Korea, they were stationed 50 miles behind battle lines, so they didn’t see any fighting, but they saw the results — aircraft blown apart by bombs with wings, tail sections and engines blasted in different directions.
“We went up and gathered the pieces,” Cunningham said. “We were supporting the war effort and sometimes we were in great danger. One time we collected an airplane on the 38th parallel and the North Koreans were watching every move we made.”
They hauled everything from cases of beer to the 20-ton International TD-24 bulldozer, navigating rough roads and treacherous mountain passes. One challenge McIntyre remembered was trying to transport aircraft down a road lined with Korean red pine trees, which hold a special status in the country.
“We had to jockey the wings in and out to not hit the trees,” he said. “It was a $100 fine if you hit those trees. Do you remember that, Jim?”
“Oh, Lord, yes,” Cunningham replied.
Both men said that Korea was a good experience for them.
“I’m glad I did it,” McIntyre said. “I hope I made a difference.”
Cunningham said he remembers standing outside in late July 1953, after the armistice was signed, and seeing the flash of the last bomb of the Korean War go off. He worries that the bombs will start again.
“God forbid we have to go to war again,” he said. “If we do, so many innocent people are going to die.”
Now that they’ve found each other, Cunningham and McIntyre said they plan to stay in touch. Cunningham is planning to visit McIntyre in New York later this year.
He remembers when he saw McIntyre for the first time back in 1953.
“I saw him walking across the parking lot and I thought, ‘I don’t know whether I’m going to like that guy,’” he said. “I was not a Christian at that point. I was as lost as a goose in a hailstorm. I would just look at you and decide I wasn’t going to like you. But when I met him, I knew I loved him. I knew he was gonna be one of my best friends.”