World War II vet’s battle for Tarawa comes home

Two books, one documentary film and several television appearances later, a local vet gets action to identify and honor remains of those killed in battle.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

Thanks to the efforts of Malibu World War II veteran Leon Cooper, the final chapter on the lives of 1,113 American soldiers who died in the bloody 1943 battle of Tarawa in the Pacific Theatre might be finally coming to a close.

As reported in The Malibu Times last year, Cooper and Santa Monica filmmaker Steven C. Barber teamed with actor and Malibu resident Ed Harris to make the documentary “Return to Tarawa,” about the World War II battle and Cooper’s efforts to repatriate the bones of some 500 Americans still lying under the garbage-strewn sands there. Cooper has also campaigned to clean up the island, and make an appropriate memorial to those who died in battle.

Now, after months of letter-writing campaigns and public scrutiny, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command for the Navy (JPAC) has notified Cooper that they are planning a mission to Tarawa this summer.

Barber and Cooper went to the Central Pacific island two years ago to document the battle there and Cooper was appalled to find that the site of such an important battle (and the burial grounds for so many American troops) had become, essentially, a junkyard.


“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 and the war memorial it is,” Cooper said. “I was determined to change that.”

Cooper began by writing the Navy, the White House, his congressional representatives and anyone else he could think of. Most of his efforts were ignored, he said.

The film Cooper and Barber produced catalogued the battle and its toll on human lives. “Return to Tarawa” was broadcast on the Military Channel (a subsidiary of the Discovery Channel) last April to popular review. Cooper and Barber subsequently appeared on “CBS Morning News” last May and “Larry King Live” last month, where Ed Harris, who narrated the film, said it was an easy call to work on the documentary, because, he said, “I appreciate people of passion.”

Cooper was certainly passionate about the battle of Tarawa and the war in the Pacific. He wrote two books on it, noting that when media footage of the carnage at Tarawa was shown in America, mothers wrote President Roosevelt, demanding the resignation of the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s commander in chief, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.

After the documentary ran on the Military Channel, Cooper and Barber began to get traction on their quest. Last June, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein wrote Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, formally requesting an inquiry into the repatriation of service member remains.

Barber said he lobbied Larry King hard to get coverage.

“I chased him for a year,” Barber said, imitating King’s unmistakable growl. “Finally, he said, ‘OK, kid. You got 10 minutes!”

Whether the Department of Defense watches Larry King or not, Cooper received notice of JPAC’s mission three weeks later.

Cooper said he hopes the mission is able to recover the remains of Alexander Bonnyman, a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient who died at Tarawa, and whose remains are still there. Cooper was so touched by the fallen soldier’s story that he is working on another documentary with Barber, titled “Bringing Home Bonnyman.”

“I’m back in fund-raising mode,” Barber said. “But Steven Spielberg is looking at the project, thanks to Ed Harris’ help. It would be great if he could include it as part of his series later this year on the World War II Pacific Theatre.”

Major Ramon Osorio, public affairs chief of plans and operations for JPAC, confirmed this summer’s mission.

“Typically, we have to coordinate any recovery effort with the host nation (in this case, the Republic of Kiribati) and Japan. Anything recovered, whether dog tags or rings or even remains, will then be taken for analysis at our DNA lab in Hawaii. Ultimately, any positive identification would be notified to the next of kin.”

Cooper is currently writing another book about Tarawa, titled “Remembering Private Somes,” about a soldier killed there. The 90-year-old veteran, who has said that he “hasn’t slept through the night in 66 years,” is still bitter about Tarawa.

“In one of my books, I quote a three-star general, a Commander Holland Smith, who said, ‘Tarawa was a tragic mistake,’” Cooper said, “This is a chance to right some of that wrong.”

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