Retrieving Lost Honor at Tarawa
Sixty-six years ago, Leon Cooper was a 22-year-old Navy ensign dodging bombs and bullets as hundreds of Marines died around him while they struggled to establish a beachhead. If there's one place the retired inventor and businessman wanted to avoid the rest of his life, it was that World War II battlefield. Yet there he was on Red Beach in the spring of 2008, reliving a nightmare.
This wasn't Normandy, with it's monuments and neatly manicured graves honoring the sacrifice of Soldiers and Sailors who came to liberate France. Rather, it was a garbage-soiled, bone-littered island of less than one square mile, and half-a-world away. There on Betio Island at the South Pacific's Tarawa Atoll, 990 men of the U.S. 2d Marine Division perished and 2,296 were wounded in overcoming a Japanese garrison of 4,700 that fought to nearly the last man in November 1943.
Though his visit was a searing reminder of the terror he faced as a Higgins landing boat officer, Cooper had a singularity of purpose in his return: to convince the U.S. government to repair the desecration of a hallowed battlefield. "The piles of garbage are an insult to all those who died there," he said with disgust from his home in Malibu, California, recently. "Is this how we honor those who fought and died for our nation during the Pacific war?"
A documentary film—Return to Tarawa: The Leon Cooper Story—debuted on the Military Channel in April and was rebroadcast on Memorial Day. CBS Evening News and ABC World News picked up the story, and SnagFilms signed a deal for wider distribution. Cooper is hoping public pressure will result in the United States cleaning the beach, now used as a vast dumping ground by islanders who have no regard for the sacrifice made there. With a population density rivaling Hong Kong, Betio needs a state-of-the-art trash incinerator. Cooper believes the Americans should build it. He also wants Washington to send forensic experts to identify missing Marines buried there and bring them home. Finally, he's campaigning to relocate an all-but-forgotten invasion memorial to a place near the beach.
Since the airing of his film, Cooper has received scores of e-mails and phone calls from families of men who fought at Tarawa. Yet he remains baffled by the continuing disinterest of the American government dating back to 2004, when an Associated Press story revealed the dumping ground that Red Beach had become. Trying to right that wrong, Cooper wrote letters to the President, Secretary of Defense, congressmen, senators, the Veterans Administration, the Battle Monuments Commission, and other agencies. They were polite but nothing came of it.
Returning home, Cooper expressed frustration to friend Steven Barber who challenged him to take the fight to a new level. "Let's go to Tarawa with a cameraman," said Barber, a Hollywood filmmaker. The trio ended up spending a week there. Afterward, Barber engaged Emmy Award-winning editor Jay Miracle to blend the film with footage of the actual invasion. Academy Award nominee Ed Harris, a resident of Malibu, agreed to narrate the film after meeting Cooper over lunch. "It was Leon's passion and forthrightness and Malibu connection that impressed me," the actor recalled. "I enjoyed his frank manner, salty language, honesty, and personal need to right this situation on Tarawa."
The documentary captures Cooper, normally quick-witted with a sunny disposition, choking back emotions as he walks amid mounds of soiled diapers, food wrappings, detritus of all kinds, unexploded ordnance, and what he's convinced are skeletal remains of fallen Marines that all but obscure Red Beach. As his documentary was being edited, Cooper flew to Washington in December in a personal appeal to Congress. He met with chiefs of staff of Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Senators Joe Lieberman (I-CT), John McCain (R-AZ), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). "I tried to see a number of others but they were 'too busy,'" Cooper sighed. "All I got were promises, promises from those I met, but literally nothing has developed since."
Back on Betio, Florida-based History of Flight used ground-penetrating radar to identify lost graves. But the company is leaving it up to the United States or private individuals to recover the remains. In regard to the cleanup, only New Zealand and Australia have expressed interest. Allied coast-watchers from New Zealand and Fiji were beheaded after the Japanese seized the island for an air base in 1941. A well-maintained monument on Betio honors the doomed sentinels.
Harris said he hopes the video will at last get Congress to act. "I think Leon's plan for incinerators that would take care of the garbage situation and at the same time create an energy source for the islanders is a brilliant one," said the actor. "There is no reason why the U.S. government couldn't finance that and respect the dead by permanently marking the graves, reburying, identifying, sending home remains to families who have long had loved ones listed as MIA."
Cooper remains indefatigable—and angry. "I think people should petition their representatives. And I think they should put as much garbage as possible on the steps of the Capitol and have the media there. I'm serious. It would be symbolic of the callous indifference of Congress."
Like the naval officer of his younger days helping Marines storm the shores of Tarawa, he isn't giving up. "Everyone should have a worthy objective in life," he said. "This is one of mine. My last hurrah."
Back from the Brink
Another important relic of U.S. naval history has been pulled from the deep to be preserved and put on display in a museum. A Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless recovered from 315 feet below the surface of Lake Michigan 27 miles from Waukegan, Illinois, on 24 April, had been lost on a training flight 65 years earlier.
On 24 November 1944, Ensign Joseph Lokites, a pilot with 380 flight hours, was attempting his third of six required landings on the USS Wolverine (IX-64).In a recent interview with the Chicago Tribune, the 86-year-old former pilot from Des Moines, Iowa, said:"It just crashed. I guess it ran out of gas or something."
More than 17,000 pilots completed their aircraft carrier qualification training on Lake Michigan in the 1940s. It is believed that 60 of their planes still remain on the bottom of the lake. After restoration the dive bomber will be displayed in the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
History in a Wallet
While cashing a check in April at a bank in Latham, New York, Kevin M. Franklin, of nearby Colonie, was handed a 1935 dollar bill with handwriting across its front. In addition, the bill has "Hawaii" stamped across the back and in two places on the front. Apparently two Sailors tagged the bill with their names and wrote the date 6/5/45 across the front of George Washington's forehead and added: Paul Samson, Cliff Drive Beach Terrace, Bristol, R.I., and R. W. Brown, U.S.S.-L.S.M. 326, c/o F.P.O. San F Calif.
Franklin would like to return the bill to either Sailor or their relatives. He tracked down the LSM-326 on the Internet and found the ship's roster, which included the names and rates of R. W. Brown, MoMM3c and A. P. Samson, F1c. But he has been otherwise unsuccessful in locating them or relatives.Can a Naval History reader help?
The commander of the U.S. Second Fleet, Vice Admiral Melvin G. Williams Jr., said he believes it is important to recognize history and to "respect those who have gone before us by celebrating and honoring their exploits." That is why he agreed to help a Harvard professor honor explorers widely credited with being the first to reach the North Pole on the centennial anniversary of their achievement, 6 April 2009.
"My role in this was very small," Williams said during a recent visit to the Naval Submarine Base in Groton. "Four words—let's make this happen."
S. Allen Counter, who teaches neurology at Harvard Medical School, first traveled to Greenland more than 20 years ago. There, he met the two sons that polar explorers Rear Admiral Robert E. Peary and Matthew A. Henson had fathered with Inuit women.
Henson, who was African-American, accompanied Peary on the U.S. expedition that claimed to have arrived at the North Pole on 6 April 1909. But the contributions he made to the expedition were for the most part forgotten because of his race, while Peary became famous.
Realizing this, Counter promised Peary's son, Kali, and Henson's son, Anaukaq, who were both elderly then, that he would bring their children to the North Pole on the centennial anniversary of the expedition. Counter was planning the trip earlier this year when he learned that warmer temperatures had weakened the ice, making it unsafe to land a plane there. He then contacted Admiral Williams.
The two did not know each other, but Counter's persuasive letter convinced Williams to support the undertaking.
The explorers' accomplishment "typifies the importance of diversity," Williams said. "As we look toward the future, there are no obstacles," he added. "People with different backgrounds can come together to accomplish greatness."
Counter packed a case of memorabilia from Peary and Henson's expedition and sent it to the ice camp near Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, where the Groton-based USS Annapolis (SSN-760) was operating in the Arctic as part of the 2009 Ice Exercise. "You can imagine my surprise when we surfaced at the ice camp and this huge box shows up topside with my name on it," Commander Michael Brunner, commanding officer of the Los Angeles-class submarine, said.
Brunner had been entrusted with a glass case containing an American flag—since the explorers brought a flag with them—a Bible similar to Henson's, items from the Inuit culture, books by Peary and Henson, and letters.
The crew brought the case out onto the ice at the North Pole for a brief ceremony shortly before the anniversary during which Brunner reflected on how far the country had come in terms of race relations. While Henson was not credited for his role in the expedition because of the discrimination that existed then, Brunner said, men now are "recognized based on their character and their achievements and not by the color of their skin."
"Looking out at my crew and seeing the diverse nature of it was just a great moment," Brunner said.
Counter retrieved the case during a ceremony on the Annapolis at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton on 24 April. It will be displayed at Harvard University and used in presentations to students.
"I wanted to keep my promise," Counter said, explaining that Peary and Henson's relatives accompanied the Annapolis to the North Pole in spirit. Brunner called it a "true privilege to participate in this dramatic adventure."
"Not only was our time under the ice dramatic," he said, "but the history lesson we were able to obtain was truly satisfying for all of us."
First in Space, Second in the Ocean
Nearly seven miles off Key West, Florida, some 140 feet down, rests the second largest man-made reef, the former USNS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg (T-AGM-10). On 27 May, holes were blown in her bottom in the final act of an $8.6 million project to acquire and clean the ship of toxic materials to convert her into a reef. The massive 524-foot 17,000-ton vessel, built during World War II as a transport, was a crucial link in U.S. space efforts for nearly two decades, from 1964-83, as a missile-tracking ship.
The impetus for her sinking is two-pronged. Officials in the Florida Keys estimate the new reef will bring in up to $8 million annually in tourist-related revenue. This would virtually pay for the project in the first year. Beyond the bump in tourism, the new reef is also expected to help protect the Keys' natural reefs. The ship will draw divers, snorkelers, and fishermen, thereby lessening their negative impact on the nearby natural coral.
As a man-man reef, the Vandenberg is second in size to the 911-foot-long, 27,000-ton ex-Oriskany (CV-34), which was sunk in 2006 about 24 miles off the coast of Pensacola Beach. A spokesman for the Vandenberg project noted that the carrier was paying dividends before she sank, with tourists coming for the event. They expected the same with the Vandenberg.