World War II vet still fighting

Leon Cooper points to the trash and sewage strewn island of Tarawa, where he participated in the battle of Bloody Tarawa during World War II. He is working on a documentary film to bring attention to its state, and to persuade the U.S. to help clean it up.

Malibu resident Leon Cooper is working to get the U.S. to clean up the island of Tarawa, where the first amphibious assault took place in the Pacific Theatre of World War II. He has enlisted the help of such people as Malibu resident Ed Harris, who will narrate a documentary.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

On Nov. 20, 1943, Malibu resident Leon Cooper was a 23-year-old Naval group boat commander unloading assault troops on the island of Tarawa in the Republic of Kiribati in the central Pacific. His troops faced a well-armed and well-prepared Japanese defense.

In the fierce three days that followed, more than 1,100 Marines were killed and more than 2,200 wounded. But the Japanese were routed in “the U.S.’s first major amphibious assault in the Pacific Theatre,” Cooper said in an interview with The Malibu Times.

In what has been referred to by journalists of the time as “the battle of Bloody Tarawa,” “our guys took the island stronghold,” Cooper said.

On the 64th Memorial Day since that battle, Cooper is still fighting for Tarawa.

“A couple of years ago, I read a news story about Tarawa of today,” Cooper said. “The photo accompanying it showed a beach and a seawall strewn with filth and garbage. It was Red Beach. It was where I landed.”

Cooper began to research and found that not much had changed in Tarawa since the war and that, more than 60 years later, the tiny island-state was still rife with unexploded U.S. ordnance, as well as the bones of the fallen.

“There was trash and sewage floating in the same waters American soldiers had died in,” Cooper said. “Nobody has ever cleaned it up.”

So Cooper began to write letters-to the Navy, to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the Veterans Administration and to Congress.

“Nobody cared,” Cooper said with righteous indignation. “The whole attitude was ‘that was long ago and far away and we have other things to do.’ This is our shame!”

Cooper recalls helping to recover the wounded from the beach with gunfire screaming overhead.

“I looked over and that actor, Eddie Albert, was right in the thick of it,” Cooper said. “He was either the bravest guy I ever saw or a damn fool. But he got the Bronze Star for his actions there and just look at Tarawa now.”

After the battle, Cooper stayed at Tarawa for several days, helping to identify and transport the dead.

“You’d stand in the chow line, but you couldn’t even eat ’cause of the stench of dead people,” he said.

Cooper retired as a lieutenant, SG immediately after the war, became an early pioneer in computer development and married his “sweetheart,” Alberta, with whom he had five children.

Several years ago, they visited some of his old battle sites at Guadalcanal and Fiji. Cooper was overwhelmed.

“It opened up floodgates I wasn’t sure I wanted open,” Cooper said. “I didn’t know what to do, and my wife said, ‘Start writing.'”

Write he did, producing memoirs of the war: “90 Day Wonder, Darkness Remembered” and, most recently, “The War in the Pacific-A Retrospective,” which has received recognition from the Independent Book Publishers Group.

But Bloody Tarawa stayed with him. After his rebuff from military officials on his inquiries into the island, Cooper traveled there and was appalled at the scope of the degradation.

“I’m talking human waste floating in the bay, human remains that have never been properly buried, unexploded bombs and missiles by the tonnage,” Cooper said. “One Tarawan woman was using a 500-pound unexploded bomb as a chicken coop! This is an insult to the memory of the servicemen who died there.”

Cooper enlisted the aid of producer Steve Barber and cameraman Matthew Hausle to shoot footage of his return to Tarawa, with an idea of turning it into a documentary. He spoke with Kiribati officials, Australian import/export entrepreneurs and Tarawan citizens to grasp the scope of his task in cleaning up the island.

“Over the years, hundreds of villagers there have been killed by old bombs,” Cooper said. “Australia has sent demolition teams to remove the unexploded ordnance-most of it our stuff-but no one from our government has been involved. It’s the land we forgot.”

Troy Kitch, spokesman for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, a joint military office tasked with recovering the remains of American servicemen from battlegrounds around the world, confirmed that there were many missing Marines at the Battle of Tarawa.

“We send out analysts and historians to research battle sites, and ID and repatriate any remains found there,” Kitch said. “In the early ’80s, we were able to identify the bones of two servicemen, but another set we couldn’t ID, so were buried in our military cemetery here in Hawaii.”

Nevertheless, Cooper has launched an action program to restore Tarawa to a condition he feels is “respectful of the lives our servicemen sacrificed there.” He wants a large-scale cleanup of trash, which has become so pervasive that a planned monument had to be erected inland from the beach.

He wants a waste and sewage treatment plant installed.

He wants a more comprehensive search for American servicemen’s remains. One man he consulted had discovered a full skeleton with an accompanying helmet liner stenciled with Marine insignia, buried for 60 years in an unmarked grave. (Kitch said that serviceman had been ID’d and returned for burial sometime in the 1940s.)

Cooper wants the U.S. government to pay for it. “It’s our mess and our shame,” he said.

He’s hoping his documentary will spur some action.

Aiding him in the documentary effort is Malibu resident Ed Harris, who will narrate, and Jay Miracle, an editor who worked on Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece “Apocalypse Now,” and subsequently edited the documentary about the making of that film.

“Leon really attracted me with his passion for this,” Miracle said. “You know, 65 years later, he still has nightmares about Tarawa and he wants some kind of redemption for what happened there.”

Cooper will be taking his cause directly to the American people this weekend when he appears for commentary on CBS Sunday Morning News.

When asked how he plans on spending Memorial Day, Cooper laughed. “Probably sleeping late, I guess,” he said. “I’m not one for parades.”