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thedrifter
12-12-08, 06:12 AM
World War II Vet Pursues New Mission

8 12:33:00 AM

A World War II veteran, who saw hundreds of U-S Marines killed in combat on the island of Tarawa, battles to honor their memory.


WASHINGTON, DC (WUSA) - - As a World War II naval officer, he served during six major battles in the South Pacific. Of all the places Leon Cooper fought, Tarawa and the words of a dying Marine haunt him the most.

"I think he said remember me, and I said repeat. He said it again...and a few minutes later he was dead," said Cooper.

The 89-year-old veteran saw hundreds of U.S. Marines die under a brutal barrage of Japanese gunfire. It was November, 1943 and many of the nearly 3,500 Americans killed or wounded never stood a chance.

"That beach was covered with American dead," said Cooper.

A documentary chronicles his February return to Tarawa on a new mission: clean up the garbage that mars hallowed ground. The remains of more than 300 Americans are still buried there, most in unmarked graves.

"There's no reason why this continuing insult to the memory of these guys should remain," Cooper said. "America's a great and generous nation. This is not like us to have allowed this to continue all these years."

The people of Tarawa have been dumping their garbage on the beach for decades. Cooper wants to build a $2.5 million dollar incinerator on the island and employ the locals to maintain it. He met with the President of the country and got his endorsement for the project.

"They're enthusiastic about this. They feel somewhat guilty that they have allowed the garbage and other things to continue, but they are a poor country," said Cooper.

He was back on Capitol Hill this week meeting with Congressional representatives. The WW II veteran wants to prick the conscience of America's powerful and its people.

"Tarawa is a symbol of our forgetfulness, our indifference, our disregard," he said.

It is a symbol that would change, if the memorial to hundreds of American heroes who never came home from Tarawa is moved to a pristine beachfront. Today, it sits in a parking lot on the island away from the garbage-strewn shoreline.

"It means I will be doing homage to my fellow countrymen who fought and died in the defense of our country...What is long overdue is to honor the guys I'm here representing," said Cooper.

The Californian spent more than $80,000 of his own money on the documentary, "Return to Tarawa: The Leon Cooper Story." He is optimistic that the film, narrated by actor Ed Harris, will appear on a major network. He also hopes the publicity will galvanize support for his cause.


Written by Phyllis Armstrong,

Ellie