CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Michael L. Cunniff
Cold War / Desert Storm / Post-9/11 Oral History Interview
US Air Force / NJ Air National Guard
Date: November 14, 2017
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Taylor Williams
Michael L. Cunniff was born into a family with several members who were veterans, but none who had made a career out of the military until his decision to do so. As a young man, he had an innate love of flying, which he maintained for the duration of his life. Despite that desire, the military was not Cunniff’s initial chosen career path.
Cunniff attended New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) in Newark, New Jersey, graduating in 1981 with a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering. He enlisted in the New Jersey Air National Guard while completing college at NJIT. During his undergraduate years, Cunniff also completed 1,700 flight hours of private flight training. He hoped to eventually become a pilot on a commercial airline. In the summer of 1982, at the age of 25, Cunniff was accepted by the NJ Air National Guard and left for training in October of that same year.
On enlistment, Cunniff was commissioned a second lieutenant and assigned to an Officer Basic School in Tennessee. After graduating from that program, he got assigned to pilot training in Columbus, Mississippi. When asked about his time in pilot training, General Cunniff stated that he had done quite well, due to his prior civilian flight training. From Columbus Air Force Base, he was transferred to flight school in Kansas for specific instruction on flying his first military plane, the F-4 Phantom. After varying levels of training, Cunniff returned to his National Guard unit, the 141st Tactical Fighter Squadron, stationed at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey.
Cunniff stated that during this period of his career, prior to 9/11, he went on little to no active duty missions, although he trained relentlessly, as required by the Air Guard. On one occasion, he had to eject from the F-4 Phantom he was flying, as it was about to crash. To recover from injuries sustained in the incident, Cunniff had to attend physical therapy sessions, where he met his wife.
Following his time flying the F-4, Cunniff was transferred to the KC-135, a tanker plane. The versatility of this plane was responsible for his experiencing a variety of deployments. Prior to 9/11, Cunniff was deployed a half dozen times to patrol the no-fly zone over northern Iraq. He was additionally assigned for brief periods to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and eventually Afghanistan.
Over the years, Cunniff was promoted through the commissioned ranks and given different formal assignments, including Range Control Officer with the 108th Tactical Fighter Wing, Instructor Pilot, Aircraft Maintenance Officer and, as a Colonel, Commander of the 385th Air Expeditionary Group at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. Following 9/11, the New Jersey Air Guard’s mission changed dramatically, with far more periods of active duty service than ever before. Michael Cunniff was promoted to Brigadier General on August 1, 2007.
General Cunniff’s last command flight was around December 2011, when he was a Brigadier General in charge of the 108th Air Wing stationed at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. In March 2012, he was interviewed for the position of Adjutant General of New Jersey and was selected for the position. Cunniff stated that there were significant differences between his former jobs and working as The Adjutant General. He was no longer flying nearly as regularly; and, he had to manage the big picture, making strategic decisions for the entire New Jersey National Guard, Army as well as Air, rather than managing the day-to-day operations of the air arm. Cunniff was, however, able to fly the first planeload of water donations from New Jersey down to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
General Cunniff described the duties of his command of the entire National Guard for the interviewer, detailing the efforts of the New Jersey Guard during Hurricane Sandy, and his visits to damaged sites around the state with the governor. Cunniff also outlined the involvement of the National Guard during the 2017 hurricane season, including participation in areas affected by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. He oversaw deploying 3500 guardsmen to Puerto Rico to aid in the recovery and rebuilding of the island after the devastation of Hurricane Maria; and, during that effort, he travelled to the island to visit the troops under his command.
When looking back at his career, General Michael Cunniff recalled that he had handled a multitude of tasks successfully, participated in many historically important events, and that he is proud of his record. He was especially pleased with his efforts in missions abroad in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, as well as his work domestically, and all the people he has had the ability to aid through disaster relief. Most importantly, however, Cunniff stated that he was extremely proud of his troops and the work that they have done and continue to do.
General Cunniff has received numerous awards over his long career as well as accumulated 6,000 flight hours, 336 combat hours, 137 combat support hours, 52 missions, and 37 combat support missions. He retired as The Adjutant General of New Jersey in December 2017.