Leon Cooper prepares for ‘Return to Tarawa’

The Malibu resident has for years campaigned to clean up the site of a three-day battle in the Pacific Theater during World War II, and to bring servicemen’s remains home. No one has paid attention. Now, with a new documentary narrated by actor Ed Harris, Cooper just might achieve his dream.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

More than 65 years later, Malibu resident and Navy veteran Leon Cooper finally gets to pay tribute to the 1,113 American troops who died in the three-day battle of Tarawa in the Pacific Theater during World War II. His story, told in the documentary “Return to Tarawa,” will premiere April 24 on the Military Channel, a new subsidiary of Discovery Communications.

As reported in The Malibu Times last year, Cooper commanded assault brigades that stormed the tiny Central Pacific island those three November days in 1943, witnessing such carnage -and heroism-that he hasn’t, he said, “slept through the night in more than 60 years.”

“Return to Tarawa,” produced by Cooper and Steven C. Barber for Vanilla Fire Productions, recounts not just the bloodbath of this pivotal battle, but Cooper’s return last year to Tarawa in the Republic of Kiribati and his resulting effort, and battle, to change what he found there.

“When I arrived on Red Beach, where I saw all our young men die, I found a garbage dump of trash, filth, unexploded American and Japanese ordnance and a complete disregard for Tarawa as the war memorial it is,” Cooper said. “I was determined to change that.”

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However, Cooper’s efforts to bring attention to the plight of Tarawa were met with seeming indifference from the targets of his letter-writing campaign: the Navy, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Congress.

But then local filmmaker Barber met Cooper and the two partnered to make the story of Cooper’s efforts come to life on-screen, which Cooper hopes will draw the attention the trash-strewn battle site deserves.

“This whole project was divinely inspired,” Barber said in an interview with The Malibu Times. “I met Leon at the L.A. Book Fair where he was talking about Tarawa. I happened to have made friends with the actor Eddie Albert, who received a Bronze Star for his bravery at Tarawa, and I asked Leon if he knew him. Leon said he watched Eddie almost get his head blown off there. We became friends.”

Barber quickly became familiar with Cooper’s determination to restore Tarawa, which had become an island of villagers living in hovels, who deposited their waste on the beach and housed chickens in unexploded bombshells. Barber suggested they return to the island.

“I told Leon, ‘If you want to get the beaches cleaned up, let’s go there and film it,” Barber said. “Leon was resistant at first, but finally agreed. I found a cameraman and we headed for Fiji.”

The President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, welcomed Cooper as a war legend and was cooperative with their plans to film on Tarawa.

Barber said he was unprepared for the reality of Red Beach.

“There were thousands of bullet cartridges and hand grenades, human bones and garbage everywhere,” he said. “The U.S. State department has done nothing since they left 65 years ago. The Australians have cleaned it up some. But there are unquestionably the remains of American servicemen still there, buried in the sands.”

With the footage they captured on a shoestring budget, Barber and Cooper returned and started archiving. They attracted the talent of actor and Malibu resident Ed Harris to narrate the film. They hired Emmy award-winning editor (for the 1992 documentary “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse”) Jay Miracle and emptied their savings accounts.

The resulting one-hour documentary was selected by Discovery to premiere its new Military Channel’s History Fridays beginning the end of this month.

“I’ve been trying to get this film made for four years,” Barber said. “It wasn’t till I stepped outside of myself that it happened. We didn’t make this for the money but for Leon. And if all the principals involved hadn’t been there, it wouldn’t have happened.”

Cooper said he is hoping to “shake up some people” with the airing of this film.

“My goal with this movie is to remind America that we can’t just pay lip service to our boys,” Cooper said. “When the news reports are over, it vanishes from people’s minds. But there are 40,000 to 50,000 MIAs (troops Missing In Action) out there and we owe it to them to find them and bring them home.”

In addition to finding servicemen’s remains, Cooper has an action plan for Tarawa: to clean up the bay at Red Beach, build a waste treatment plant to handle the trash on the island and install a Marine Corps memorial on the beach next to a Coastwatcher’s memorial.

“This plan can be implemented for only $2 million and maintained yearly for about $100,000,” Cooper said. “Our military should be able to come up with that.”

Cooper summed up his position with a quote from the 19th century British Prime Minister William Gladstone, “One can judge the conscience of a nation by the recognition it gives to those who died for it.”

“Return to Tarawa” will air April 24, on the Military Channel at 8 p.m. More information on Cooper’s effort to clean up Tarawa’s Red Beach can be obtained online at www.returntotarawa.net

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