Return to Tarawa – Interview With Leon Cooper
Leon Cooper is sad and angry. The World War II Navy veteran, now 89 years old, has embarked on a personal mission that grew out of his first combat experience in the South Pacific, the Battle of Tarawa, November 20-23, 1943. As a young ensign he was operating a Higgins Boat ferrying U. S. Marines of the 2nd Division ashore on Betio, where the bitter fighting against a well-established Japanese defense started even as the landing craft approached the island and dropped the Marines and their support equipment on Red Beach.
As traumatic as the experience was, Cooper put Tarawa aside in his mind as he moved on to other actions in the Pacific and moved on with his life. Then, a few years ago, he came across a news article on Tarawa, specifically Red Beach which had become a garbage dump over the years as the native population disposed of processed food containers and other debris from other cultures. The article prompted him to contact the U. S. government about restoring the beach as a war memorial. When that went nowhere, he took upon himself the challenge to do something; he took a camera crew to the South Pacific and made the documentary Return to Tarawa, The Leon Cooper Story, which airs on The Military Channel, April 24, 10 pm Eastern Time.
Leon sat down with Jay Wertz for an exclusive ArmchairGeneral.com interview to discuss his wartime experience in the 1943 battle, his trip to Tarawa last year and what he discovered in the process. The frustration he feels over what he regards as the U.S. Government’s failure to honor the men of Tarawa makes him both sad and angry.
Jay Wertz: I read a little bit about your role in the battle. You were a landing craft commander, operator taking troops ashore at Red Beach. Was that Red 1, 2 or 3?
Leon Cooper: Well, at the last moment, somebody said go to Red Beach. The battle was a screw-up from the very first morning, so landing somewhere on Red Beach is all I can recall.
JW: Take me back to that November 20th morning and tell me a little bit about bringing in the first wave, what your role was, and what you observed.
LC: I was a wave commander, so to speak, of a group of a dozen or so Higgins boats carrying Marines of the 2nd Division. We got about halfway there, and some guy came up in another landing craft and said boats are hung up on the beach, stand by. So we hung around instead of going in around 7 or 8 in the morning as we should have. The Marines had been vomiting everywhere during the long ride and more so during the long wait before we finally got the go-ahead.
An hour or so later we headed in. I couldn’t see anything, except smoke and fire covering the whole island. It isn’t much of an island, only about two-and-a-half miles long and about a half-mile wide. I landed somewhere on Red Beach, and it was all I could do to prevent the Marines from jumping out of the boat because we were being hit pretty heavy by machine-gun and other fire from Japanese positions on the island. With their heavy packs, the Marines would have drowned. They were scared and so was I. I still don’t know to this day how I survived. I saw scores of guys just falling everywhere. All I can say about that first morning is that if there was anything that could have gone wrong, it did.
That trip was just the first of a number of landings; I got back to my ship, got some more assault troops and headed back, and the situation was pretty much the same. I made about half-dozen trips into Red Beach. I was so goddamn scared. I tried to stand on the engine box of my boat repeatedly waving my flag – which was an act of stupidity because the Japanese figured if this dumbbell was waving flags he must be important, so they were shooting at me.
That was my first battle experience and, needless to say, I still carry the memory after all these 65 years. You never really lose the memory of the sounds, the smell and everything, including the blood running down your nose so you’re smelling blood instead of breathing.
JW: How long did you remain there ferrying troops or wounded?
LC: Well, I made several trips back with the wounded. Then, on one of my trips, about the third day, the beach master – that’s the guy who is the principal organizer of the landings and the deployment of boats and troops and then later supplies and then carrying back the wounded to the ship – corralled me. I can’t remember why or what he wanted me to do on the beach. I think the battle was still going on, pretty much moderated by then. I can’t remember why I was there or what the hell I was doing except that it was for about a week or so. I wandered around, the smell of rotting bodies was permeating the air. That’s a smell that stays with you all your life. I carried some of the wounded from one place to another and worked on burial details, but I can’t remember much more that that.
JW: Okay, and then you moved on to, obviously, other operations in the Pacific.
JW: Did you make a conscious decision to go back to Tarawa at some point after the war? What led you to wonder what the condition of the battlefield was today and get the whole idea going about this operation that you’re now pursuing?
LC: I was doing research for one of my books, The War in the Pacific, and I happened upon an AP report that I still remember verbatim. It said, “Where hundreds of Marines died there are now millions of plastic bags, crumpled paper boxes and so forth.” Beside the AP dispatch was a photograph of a kid sitting on a garbage pile, a young Tarawan native, and I looked closely at the picture and recognized Red Beach, where I had been as a young man many years before. Garbage lay everywhere on what to me was hallowed ground, where I saw so many of my countrymen killed or wounded by Japanese.
So I set about writing emails and letters, sending faxes to the usual suspects in Washington, everybody I could think of, over 100 easily, and I got no response. I remember one email saying “Thank you, Mr. Cooper for your interest in this matter." (Laugh.) Finally, I decided I’m not going to get anything done by firing off missiles to Washington, so I took a camera crew with me a year ago this past February to film this outrage, this garbage all over Red Beach. But things I learned when I got there were far more disturbing.
I had credible evidence that the remains of Americans still lay in various parts of the island, not in organized gravesites. I still don’t know for sure, but I think one of them is Lt. Bonnyman (First Lieutenant Alexander Bonnyman, Jr.), a Medal of Honor winner. If true, that is surely the most disgraceful thing that could possibly have happened.
I met a number of people who assured me that, yes, they had uncovered remains of American Marines. I saw evidence of these discoveries; one in particular comes to mind. To get further information about the remains of dead Americans, I met with the president of Kiribati, the country that used to be called the Gilbert Islands, and he said, “Mr. Cooper, you ought to meet the biggest man in Tarawa.”
A day or so later, I had lunch with a guy about six-foot-eight, a transplanted Australian who goes by the name of “Big Louie.” He’s an Australian contractor working for the country of Kiribati, and he said one of his laborers was digging a trench for a septic tank on the island and uncovered the remains of a Marine, with a wristwatch, dog tags, and remains of his uniform. After 60-plus years, the metal of the helmet was gone, but the fiberglass liner remained and Big Louie showed me a photograph of it. The fiberglass liner said Somes, S-O-M-E-S, P-V-T-U-S-M-C.
I said, "Who is this guy, Louie?"
He said he had written letters to everybody in Washington, anyone he could think of, and he finally got a letter back saying there’s no way that this could be an American Marine or soldier, all had been repatriated. So he said, “Isn’t that a goddamn lie?" (Laugh) I had to agree.
“Where’s Somes now?” I asked, and Louie drew a map on a paper napkin and marked an X on a it. The spot is where the Coastwatchers Memorial stands. Coastwatchers were a group of Australians and New Zealanders who sat on these islands in the South Pacific marking the movement of Japanese ships and radioing the information back to Australia. About a dozen were captured by the Japanese invaders and beheaded. Years later, at the place where they had been executed, this beautiful memorial was dedicated near Red beach, and that’s where Louie put Pvt. Somes’ remains. I went there, and I could feel my throat tighten as I said a silent prayer to him. That, along with other evidence convinces me there are plenty of other American remains lying on that island.
JW: What is the reaction of the government there in terms of possible cooperation for a memorial or expanded park or something? How do they feel about it?
LC: They feel guilty about the garbage. Sometime in the 1950s they decided to put all their garbage on Red Beach; they figured there should only be one place where all the garbage would be located, so it’s all on the tiny island of Betio, where the principal fighting took place. They’re really nice, delightful, beautiful people, they mean no harm. Garbage, of course, is a result of our introduction to them of so-called Western civilization. Before we introduced them to our diet, they ate breadfruit, papaya, coconuts and so forth and threw the remains on the ground to decay.
When I was there, I presented an action plan for Tarawa, which among other things called for the collection and distribution of garbage and the installation of a state-of-the-art incineration system that would consume all the garbage and provide additional electricity for the island. The president of Kiribati was delighted by the idea, so at this time there is a study under way.
The installation of an incineration plant could be a model, hopefully, for all other South Sea island nations where, no different than Tarawa, they throw garbage on the beaches. Hopefully, the plan will become reality. The New Zealand government has a consultant on the spot who is interested in pursuing my ideas about the incinerating plant.
JW: So your action plan really has a dual purpose: it is eco-friendly and preserves the beach. How did the plan go over with entities that you’ve spoken with in the United States, such as Department of Defense (DOD), Veterans Affairs or private groups?
LC: How did it go over? With a loud thud. (Laugh). This is the irony of the whole thing. The New Zealand government hired an American as a consultant and made six million dollars available for the – I’m not sure what the word is, but for beautification of the island and for making it more inhabitable.
There was plenty of ammunition scattered all over that tiny, densely populated island, I might add. Everywhere you walk you see spent cartridges, live grenades, live mortar shells, and this little island has a population density greater than Hong Kong, so many people, especially kids, have been killed or injured. I can only guess, nobody would tell me; I tried to find out, but that was a secret they wouldn’t share with me.
So what is being done about this live ammo everywhere? Well, Australia sent a guy whose job is deactivating all the bombs they find in the lagoon and elsewhere on the island. So here are Australia and New Zealand doing our dirty work.
I was in Washington this past December 7 – the date was just coincidence, it wasn’t planned – and I saw the big shots in the Senate and in the House, and I prevailed upon them to do something about this. Promises, promises. Nothing as far as I know was ever done. The Australians and New Zealanders are at work, but we’re doing nothing there.
JW: You have created, as least conceptually, an idea of the kind of memorial you would like to see.
LC: Absolutely. First of all, I’d like to have Red Beach restored to its pristine condition, and then have the Marine Corps memorial – which is in a parking lot, believe it or not, because they can’t put it any closer to the filth around Red Beach –moved from the parking lot to Red Beach. I feel I owe it to the guys that I saw fall under Japanese gunfire. Hopefully, showing the documentary Return to Tarawa, The Leon Cooper Story, will have the effect of – I’ll use the word – shaming our government to finally do something about this.
JW: Outside the government, in talks perhaps you’ve had with other organizations, private citizens, have you made any progress? Do you feel there’s any movement in this country that will help you toward your goal?
LC: No, it’s all inertia. A lot of people have sent me money or offered to send me money and I returned it. This is not a private affair, this is something that our government owes the guys who fought and died for our country. In the 1930s, British Prime Minister William Gladstone said, “One can judge the conscience of a nation by the recognition it gives to those who died for it.”
JW: And the possibility of unrecovered remains, has that induced any reaction among any of the people that you’ve talked to officially?
LC: Nobody in DOD has bothered to return any of my phone calls. In 1946, the Quartermaster Corps, the Grave Registration Unit, sent a group to Tarawa to establish, find, locate, identify and return the remains of Americans, but I quote from that report verbatim: “Unfortunately only 48% of those claimed to have been interred in Tarawa could be found.” As far as I know, nobody from the United States government has returned to do anything about the remaining 52%. I know about some of the burials myself because I participated in some of them when I was there.
I’m flattered to be in the company of Gen. Holland Smith of the Marine Corps who said Tarawa was a mistake. There is a cemetery honoring the Battle of Tarawa in Hawaii, but our nation owes a debt that should be recognized by restoring Red Beach to its pristine condition and repatriating the remains of the Americans still there.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this interview are those of Leon Cooper. Those who wish to follow his continuing efforts can do so at his blog site.
The author requested additional information from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) and received the following response on April 29, 2009:
No excavations or recoveries specifically targeting the Red Beach regions have taken place since American Graves Service activities on Tarawa in 1946. The last JPAC recovery operation on Tarawa occurred in 2000, vicinity of Black Beach #2. We are currently in the planning phase of the next year’s operational cycle. Results and details for upcoming JPAC operations are not yet available, as they are currently under development.