World War II vet’s efforts finally pay off

Forensic excavation teams were able to locate the remains of two people who were “highly likely” to have been American servicemen who died in the 1943 “Bloody Battle of Tarawa.”

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

When 91-year-old Malibu resident Leon Cooper visited the Pacific island of Tarawa several years ago, it was the first time he had stepped ashore in almost 70 years. Back then it was to help recover the bodies of some 1,100 servicemen killed in the “Battle of Bloody Tarawa” during World War II. Today, he is still helping to locate his fallen military comrades.

As profiled in The Malibu Times, Cooper, has led the charge to recover the bones of long-dead U.S. servicemen from a distant battleground for two years now, lobbying Congress, badgering the Department of Defense and, in general, making “a huge, noisy pest” of himself.

Apparently he was noisy enough. The U.S. Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command (JPAC) sent a mission to Tarawa in July and forensic excavation teams were able to locate the remains of two people who were “highly likely” to have been American servicemen who died in the 1943 battle, said filmmaker Steven Barber, who made a documentary about Cooper’s quest.

Barber’s film, “Return to Tarawa: The Leon Cooper Story,” was aired on the Discovery network’s Military Channel last year.

“This was Leon’s war and Leon’s passion,” Barber said of the mission to locate and repatriate Cooper’s fellow soldiers. “There were maybe two or three hundred soldiers still left on that island and Leon never stopped working to get them back. He’s an amazing guy.”

The JPAC team spent six weeks on Tarawa this summer, led by archeologist Gregory Fox and a group of young Marines who spent grueling, hot 12-hour days digging in the sand. Barber was there to film the mission for a sequel to Cooper’s documentary.

“These guys had all been deployed in Iraq, in Fallujah; guys who’d seen combat,” Barber said. “They saw this as an incredibly honorable duty, to search for fallen soldiers from a battle long ago. It’s in keeping with their motto to never leave a buddy behind. Most kids today only know about World War II from video games.”

The team excavated five areas that had been targeted as likely gravesites, including one they hoped would reveal the remains of Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient (awarded posthumously), Marine 1st Lt. Alexander Bonnyman. While several sets of remains were found, the field team was tasked with determining whether they were native islanders, fallen Japanese or American. Based on dental features and items like belt buckles or exploded ordnance nearby, two sets of remains were identified as likely U.S. soldiers.

“Everything was taken back to Hawaii,” Barber said. “They were very reverential and it was a very moving ceremony to see the remains prepared for shipment in those flag-draped coffins.”

The remains will be further examined at JPAC’s forensic laboratories in hopes of securing a positive identity and, ultimately, notification of family. Major Ramon Osorio, U.S. Army public affairs officer for JPAC, said he was pleased that the mission seemed successful.

“We have teams trying to locate and identify fallen servicemen all over the world,” Osorio said. “Last year, we were just short of 100 positive identifications. So any time we have a recovery mission where we find two likely candidates as U.S. servicemen, especially from a battle so long ago, it’s a very good thing.”

JPAC takes guidance and policy from the Department of Missing Persons Office through the Department of Defense. Osorio said his commander provides regular updates to Congress and was asked last year to investigate Tarawa.

“Until the remains we found have a complete evaluation, we won’t know for sure who we have,” Osorio said. “But this summer’s mission was also valuable because we now know where not to look on the next mission to Tarawa.”

Osorio said another mission would be undertaken by JPAC sometime in the future, perhaps within 18 months.

Cooper himself is pleased with the results of the mission, but said it’s not enough.

“Sometimes it helps to be squeaky,” Cooper said of his efforts on behalf of his fellow soldiers. “But I’m after the bigger picture. There are thousands of guys all over the Pacific that JPAC has known about and done nothing. It’s our government’s shame, because these guys died for us. The least we can do is bring ‘em home.”

Cooper is anxious to see action on Tarawa by JPAC sooner rather than later. Seventy years after the fact, families’ memories of their World War II heroes are dimming, and he fears that “no one will be left to honor the remains being returned.”

Even at 91, Cooper is more determined than ever to keep his comrades’ ultimate sacrifice in the forefront of American consciousness. He has plans to produce a series of films about the Pacific Theatre and those still missing in action.

“I can only say that finally, after 70 years, our government is doing something,” Cooper said. “It’s not much, but it’s something.”

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