From World War II to Iraq, four vets speak of their experiences during war.
By Jonathan Friedman/Staff Writer
Like many of our nation’s war veterans, Malibu resident Leon Cooper faced several close calls while serving as a Navy officer in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Cooper, however, was placed into those situations more often than he should have been, he says, because he believes the commanding officer aboard the naval ship did not like him and sent him on many dangerous missions.
Cooper, who has written about his memories in a book called “90 Day Wonder-Darkness Remembered,” said the commanding officer, Capt. Joseph Boda, was a tyrannical man who hated college graduates like Cooper. Boda was angry that college graduates needed only 90 training days to become a commissioned officer, Cooper said, while others, like Boda, needed about four years.
Cooper said he publicly challenged the captain on several occasions in response to his insane behavior that he said often put people’s lives in danger. This, Cooper said, further added to Boda’s hatred of him, which led Boda to force Cooper to take part in many deadly missions.
One involved driving a boat fitted with explosives to the shore of an island where the Japanese had set mines. As instructed, Cooper jumped off just before the boat hit shore. The blast that followed nearly knocked him unconscious, and he was rescued from the water half-alive. But that was better than what the captain had hoped.
“Much to my commanding officer’s surprise, I was alive,” Cooper said. “Not only was he surprised, but profoundly disappointed.”
Although Cooper’s stories are frightening, he is able to laugh at many of them now. But something he takes seriously is how the navy pilots saved his life. During the war, Cooper commanded the boats that transported the soldiers from the ship to the shore of the Japanese islands. He said without those pilots clearing the skies of Japanese fighters, he would not have survived those missions.
Maintaining morale on
Malibu City Councilmember Jeff Jennings voluntarily joined the military during the latter years of the Vietnam War, a time when others were leaving the country to avoid the draft. He spent most of 1971 in Vietnam as a legal officer. Already a Stanford Law School graduate, Capt. Jennings prosecuted court martial cases. He earned the Bronze Star for his service.
Jennings lived with the rest of the soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division (the same division the City of Malibu currently sponsors) in what he called “little plywood huts.” He said the combination of the military, consisting mostly of draftees, and few if any offensives taking place made it a fairly uncomfortable place to be.
“It’s difficult to remain at a high morale when you’re sort of on the defensive, and just hoping to get home,” Jennings said.
Jennings also spoke with the local people. He said they were pleased to have the Americans there, hoping it would lead to a free and democratic South Vietnam. This caused Jennings to reach the conclusion that the U.S. had a reason to be there, differing from the opposition he felt to the war prior to his arrival. He said the way the war finished was unfortunate because the United States had made a commitment to help the people of South Vietnam, but was unable to see it through. However, Jennings said that might have been inevitable.
“The country had so many problems and was so vulnerable, short of occupying them forever, we couldn’t have supported the country, we couldn’t have achieved that goal,” he said.
Jennings said the state of the military in terms of professionalism and spirit was at an all-time low during the closing years of the Vietnam War and for a period of time that followed. However, he said he is pleased to see that, today, the situation is completely reversed.
Differing views on current war
Malibu resident Justin Fleming and Lance Cpl. Ryan Wald, whose mother Kimberly Levay lives here, will both be celebrating their first Veteran’s Day. The two served as Marines in the recent war in Iraq, but they have differing views on their experiences. Fleming, a 2001 graduate of Malibu High School, said he realized he was doing the right thing by fighting in Iraq when he saw the happy faces of the Iraqi people.
“Regardless of what the political reasons may have been, I know we did a good thing for the Iraqi people by giving them their freedom,” Fleming said.
Wald, however, a Twentynine Palms resident who will be speaking on Veteran’s Day at a Malibu Chamber of Commerce event, said he is unsure whether his service in Iraq was necessary. He said he questions President Bush’s motivation for going to war, especially with the more pressing issues that he says exist in this country. But Wald does not regret joining the military. He said he was always getting into trouble as a kid, and the Marine Corps made him a better person who now has his life on track.
Fleming was sent to Kuwait in February to protect Camp Commando. Then in March he went to Iraq. He said a lot of his combat involved going from house to house searching for Iraqi soldiers. He and his company moved their way through Tikrit, a city in northern Iraq, taking fire from the enemy troops.
Wald spent most of his time in Iraq guarding the prisoners of war just outside Baghdad. He and the other guards had to work in long shifts and Wald said it was sometimes difficult to stay awake for long periods of time, having to do it on pure adrenaline. Wald said it was sad to see how the Iraqi soldiers were so poorly supplied, lacking proper clothing and shoes.
Wald also searched for Iraqi soldiers. He said most of them surrendered immediately, and they were taken as prisoners.
Wald is going to school in San Francisco shortly to learn to become a professional chef. Fleming is also attending school.
The 4th Annual Veteran’s Day Public Ceremony sponsored by teh Malibu Chamber of Commerce and the City of Malibu will take place at Malibu City Hall on Stewart Ranch Road, Nov. 11, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.