Person of the Month: Leon Cooper, 94-year-old WWII Veteran
By Steven C. Barber
Ninety-four-year-old Leon Cooper moved to Malibu in 1961 and has been on a mission for 50 years to bring home his fallen
Marine brothers from the Battle of Tarawa and other historic battle sites from World War II. His unbending and relentless energy is more than most people half his age, and there is no stopping him in the foreseeable future.
Leon joined the Navy in 1942 and became a, “90-day wonder,” as it became known. In those 90 days, thousands of young Lieutenants like Leon were trained, and within four months, these brave young men became Higgins Boat Commanders and were sent to the Pacific to ferry young United States Marines into battles on what was known as, “island-hopping campaigns,” all the way to Japan.
Leon is a WWII veteran of six pacific battles, from Iwo Jima to the Battle of Saipan. But the one that still haunts him to this day is the Battle of Tarawa, where 1,139 U.S. Marines were killed in 76 hours of bloody savagery.
“I can still smell the stench of the rotting corpses,” Cooper says after all of these years. “It is something you will never forget.”
This was the first time in the history of warfare that a full frontal naval assault was held on any enemy stronghold, and in those 76 hours, over 5,000 Imperial Japanese Marines would be killed. It was the biggest loss of life in the three-day time frame in the history of warfare, only being outdone 90 years earlier at Antietam, during the Civil War.
Some 64 years after the Battle of Tarawa, fate intervened and I was introduced to Leon at the UCLA Book Fair in 2007. It was really an odd thing to meet Leon, as I had been there over three hours and not spoken to anyone, and on my way out, I just happened to see him at a lonely table by himself and we struck up a conversation. He had just published his new books at the time, 90 Day Wonder: Darkness Remembered, and The War in the Pacfic: A Retrospective. To say that Leon and I hit it off would be an understatement.
That fortuitous meeting would take both myself and Leon Cooper around the earth three times, attempting to clean the beaches of Tarawa, and bring home U.S. Marines from WWII still buried all over the Pacific. There are 88,000 MIAs from WWII that never came home, and Leon Cooper is the last WWII veteran in the fight at the age of 94!
Leon, who struck up a friendship with Ed Harris, convinced Ed to narrate our first film in 2008 called, ”Return to Tarawa: The
Leon Cooper Story.” This film was picked up by Discovery’s Military Channel and seen by millions around the world. The film was so powerful that it made its way through the halls of Congress, and legislation was enacted to mount a mission in 2010 to go back to Tarawa and look for over 500 U.S. Marines still buried somewhere on this tiny atoll the size of Central Park, some 7,000 miles off the coast of California.
I was honored to accompany 17 members of JPAC (Joint POW MIA Accounting Command) with my producer Matthew Hausle back to Tarawa on a 42-day mission to dig in six locations. To be able to fly halfway around the earth on a C-17 Globemaster with this historic mission was the thrill of a life time.
After an exhaustive search in the searing equatorial sun, we documented the efforts of this young contingent of Marines, Air Force and Navy personnel, whose tireless efforts for over six weeks yielded the remains of two U.S. Marines from 1943. A full military repatriation was executed on the tiny tarmac of Tarawa, and 45 U.S. Marines flew in for this special ceremony. All of this happened though the caring and thought-provoking work of Leon Cooper, who has never left his fallen behind in his heart.
When we returned in late 2010, we began the editing process and took the project to the legendary actor and Malibu resident Kelsey Grammar. His grandfather was in the Pacific in WWII. Kelsey not only lent his symphonic voice to the 65-minute narration, but he also helped with the marketing by going on the Larry King show with me. Thus, the new film called, “Until They Are Home” (JPAC MOTTO) was born.
The movie resonated with America and the Academy and was shortlisted for the 2012 Academy Awards. Country music star Clint Black threw in his hat and wrote the theme song, and the film debuted on Memorial Day 2012 to over 1,000 Angelinos and a platoon of U.S. Marines from Camp Pendleton.
WWW.UNTILTHEYAREHOME.COM was just acquired by NETFLIX and is now being seen in 41 counties in the streaming capacity. I am receiving emails from all around the world from veterans and regular folk who truly love the film.
I want to personally thank Leon Cooper, who is at this very moment fundraising for another mission that will take him to Japan and New Guinea to look for more of Americas 88,000 MIAs from WWII. Leon’s tireless actions and constant vigilance should be a lesson for all of us that nothing is too hard, too big or too impossible to make a difference. Leon has spent over $200,000 of his own money for these films, and that, in itself, is patriotism at its highest level.
Semper Fi, Mr. Cooper!
Steven C. Barber