Obituaries

Leon Cooper, 98, who carried on a battle for Tarawa

A naval officer pinned an award on Leon Cooper’s jacket in 2016, when Cooper was honored during a White Sox game in Chicago.
Jeffrey Gray/US Navy
A naval officer pinned an award on Leon Cooper’s jacket in 2016, when Cooper was honored during a White Sox game in Chicago.

Leon Cooper, a Navy landing boat commander who survived the costly Battle of Tarawa in World War II and later became a leading advocate for the preservation of the site on that Pacific atoll and the return of Marines’ remains buried there, died Nov. 16 in Malibu, Calif. He was 98.

His son William said the cause was complications from a fall.

On Nov. 20, 1943, the United States launched its Central Pacific campaign with a massive amphibious attack on the island of Betio, a heavily fortified stronghold defended by more than 4,000 Japanese troops in the Gilbert Islands. It was the first phase of a plan to take the Marshall and Mariana islands.

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But taking Betio proved far more difficult than the campaign’s military planners had expected. Low tides, for one thing, made it nearly impossible for the boats to get to the beach to let Marines disembark.

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Mr. Cooper’s boat, which made several runs ferrying Marines of the 2nd Division from ships offshore, became, like others, stranded on a coral reef. Marines were forced to wade ashore, making them easy targets for Japanese gunners, who were prepared for the assault.

“There was no way to get out of the line of fire,” Mr. Cooper said in “Return to Tarawa,” a documentary film about his battle experiences that was televised on the Military Channel in 2009. “Every goddamned angle was covered. We bumbled and stumbled into all this slaughter.”

The US forces took the island in 76 hours, but the toll was brutal: About 1,000 Marines died, and 2,296 were wounded. The New York Times wrote, “Riddled corpses form a ghastly fringe along the narrow white beaches where men of the Second Marine Division died for every foot of sand.”

Tarawa was the first of six Pacific battles, including Iwo Jima, that Mr. Cooper participated in. But it was the one that never left him.

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Tarawa continued to anger him for years and caused nightmares; in one, he said, he dreamed he was falling deep underwater before encountering a young boy sitting on a submerged Sherman tank.

“You never really lose the memory of the sounds, the smells and everything, including the blood running down your nose so you’re smelling blood instead of breathing,” he told Armchair General magazine in 2009.

His return to Tarawa for the documentary in 2008 brought back a flood of memories as he walked the beach where he had carried Marines into ferocious Japanese crossfire.

“I smell the stench of those bodies rotting in the sun,” he said. “It still comes back to me.”

Leon Cooper was born on Oct. 23, 1919, in Chicago. His father, William Sr., owned gas stations and was later a bookkeeper. His mother, the former Rachel Rossman, was a homemaker who became a saleswoman at Lane Bryant after ulcers made her husband too ill to continue working. To help his once-prosperous family make ends meet, Leon became a caddy and his brother William Jr. a prizefighter.

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Mr. Cooper enlisted in the wartime Navy after graduating from the University of Illinois with a degree in government, finance, and accounting.

After the war, his family said, Mr. Cooper held federal and state government jobs, started a computer training school and was an executive at Teledyne and Litton Industries. He later helped invent a smoke detector tester and sold it for many years through his company, Home Safeguard Industries.

In the 1990s, he began to write books, all but one about war. While researching “The War in the Pacific: A Retrospective” (2006), he learned that Red Beach on Betio, where he had delivered Marines, had become a dump, strewn with trash and in some places human excrement.

“Garbage lay everywhere on what to me was hallowed ground, where I saw so many of my countrymen killed or wounded by Japanese,” he said in the Armchair General interview.

Revisiting his past kindled Mr. Cooper’s late-in-life activism, which suited his gregarious, blunt-spoken and profane personality.

Disgusted by the conditions on the beach, he began contacting members of Congress to authorize funding to clean it up, a campaign that has not yet succeeded.

Steven Barber, director of “Return to Tarawa,” said in an interview that Mr. Cooper had trouble persuading some members of Congress to take him seriously. In an attempt to lobby Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, he said, “Leon was beating on her door screaming, ‘Throw some alms to the poor!’ ”

But Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, was more sympathetic. In remarks in 2006 in the Congressional Record praising Mr. Cooper, Waxman said, “The sanctity of our battlefield, monuments and veterans’ institutions is of utmost importance to preserve military history and pay respect to those who fought.”

Mr. Cooper made a stronger impact after “Return to Tarawa” was televised. It showed him, dismayed but relentless, walking the beach and spotting old gun emplacements and other artifacts of the battle; talking to local government officials of the Republic of Kiribati, of which Tarawa is part, and meeting people who had uncovered Marine remains.

“You look down in the ground,” he said in the film, “and you see the mortal remains of somebody — Japanese or American.”

The broadcast led Representative Dan Lipinski, an Illinois Democrat, to draft language in the 2009 National Defense Authorization Act in the hope of persuading the Pentagon to make the return of Marines’ remains from Tarawa a higher priority.

In 2015, after 39 sets of remains were recovered, Mr. Cooper said the scope of his quest had expanded to all service members still missing in action in the Pacific Theater.

“More of our guys lie in unmarked graves in the Pacific than in Europe, where battles were in areas with urban populations,” he told the military newspaper Stars and Stripes.

In addition to his son William, he leaves his daughters, Katie and Jeanie Cooper; two other sons, Peter and Lee; and six grandchildren. His wife, the former Alberta Brown, died in 1994.

Mr. Cooper believed that the Battle of Tarawa had been poorly planned and should never have been fought.

“Three days of savagery taught the Japanese how to kill more Americans,” he said in the documentary, “and taught us to do more stupid things.”