April 18, 2024 #1 Local News, Information and Event Source for the Century City/Westwood areas.

Leave No Soldier Behind

Leon Cooper awash in garbage at red Beach on the island of Tarawa.

The Battle of Tarawa was the second confrontation between U.S. and Japanese forces in the Pacific Theatre. It resulted in one of the WWII’s bloodiest battles.  At the end of three days of fighting – November 20th – 23rd, 1943 – 1,100 U.S. Marines were dead, 2,400 wounded and all but 17 of the Island’s 4,700 Japanese defenders had perished.  

This was Malibu resident and Navy Ensign Leon Cooper’s introduction to the war.  A Higgins Boat coxswain, Cooper ferried scores of soldiers from the large transports that traversed the Pacific to the small island – located in an atoll approximately 2,500 miles south of Hawaii – for battle.  [Higgins boats are plywood landing crafts. These are the boats featured in the opening of Saving Private Ryan.]

Although the battle lasted for three days, Cooper was on the island for over a week – along with the rotting corpses of fallen soldiers and the sound of U.S. warplanes using the airstrip that the victorious fighters had secured. Cooper fought in five more battles during his four years in WWII. Soon after returning to his desk as a federal employee, Cooper grew restless and left the government – going to work as a management consultant.  

Then, in 2005, Cooper started yet another phase of his career: writer and activist. He has written two books and co-authored one screenplay. In February of this year, Cooper returned to Tarawa.  

Filmmaker Steven Barber and film’s narrator, Academy Award winning actor Ed Harris.

“As soon as I set foot on the island the smell came back to me,†Cooper recalled of his walk on Red Beach where he lost so many of his comrades. “The hallowed ground where heroes fell is now used as a giant trash dump by the locals.  The remains of brave Americans soldiers are still on the island. It’s unconscionable!†Cooper’s voice rises with passion.

Ever since that fateful walk, Cooper has made it his mission to restore Red Beach to its pristine beauty, as a permanent war memorial to the servicemen who took part in the battle.  

However Cooper is concerned with more than the past. He sees his efforts as a way to protect the future as well. “Live ammunition, U.S. ammunition, is still on the beach and it’s killing and maiming islanders. Kids are especially vulnerable. The ammunition is bright and shiny so it appeals to kids.†So far, Cooper hasn’t gotten any support from U.S. officials, despite numerous appeals to both Sacramento and Washington, D.C.  He hopes this might change when he goes to Washington the week of December 7th to visit his grown children and lobby lawmakers.  

Documentary filmmaker Steven Barber’s film about Cooper’s journey, Tarawa: Darkness Remembered, narrated by Ed Harris, follows in the tradition of great films about the battle; With the Marines at Tarawa which won the 1944 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short. Barber’s film should be completed in the beginning of 2009. He and Cooper hope to bring it to a cable outlet and in doing so, hope to garner enough interest so that the brave men of 1943 can finally rests in peace.

For more information on the documentary, “Return to Tarawa: The Leon Cooper Story†visit www.returntotarawa.com

For more information on Mr. Cooper’s books; “90 Day Wonder – Darkness Remembered,†and “The War in the Pacific – A Retrospective,†visit: www.90daywonder.net and www.warinpacific.net

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