U of I alumnus ignites effort to recover those who vanished in a battle that haunts him still.
Leon Cooper first saw the South Pacific beaches of Tarawa during the height of World War II. Just a couple years removed from the U of I, he was a somewhat irreverent naval ensign with a graveyard wit, joking that he joined the U.S. Navy because instead of fighting in trenches “you just drown.” At Tarawa, his first battle, he’d learn the grim reality of war at sea.
U.S. commanders at the time considered the remote string of islands some 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii as crucial to winning the Pacific. The Tarawa atoll, however, specifically the island of Betio (bay-shio), was occupied by almost 5,000 entrenched Japanese troops who had vowed that not even a million men could take it.
The American attack on Betio on November 20, 1943, was hamstrung by errors. Delays gave the Japanese precious time to reinforce their positions, and a low tide forced American landing craft to navigate slowly through coral reefs in the face of withering enemy fire.
Cooper (AB ’41, general curriculum) led a group of small Higgins landing boats tasked with delivering U.S. marines ashore at Red Beach. He says the horrors of the landing “played tricks” with his mind, and he’s hesitant to spell out details for fear of misstating the truth, but suffice it to say that the deadly race to shore tested every bit of Higgins boat commanders’ courage and skill. If they unloaded the marines too early they’d drown. If they drew too close to shore the boat would be an irresistible target.
And too often, Cooper says, the ending was the same, with marines finally reaching the beach only to be cut down by a Japanese crossfire.
More than 1,100 Americans and some 4,700 Japanese died at Betio, prompting public outcry over whether the American victory on what the Chicago Daily News famously called a “stinking little abattoir of an island” was worth it. After the war U.S. Marine General Holland Smith declared that Tarawa was a mistake.
The battle—the first of six for Cooper—haunts him still. For years Cooper dreamt in his sleep that he was sinking down among the bright blue, yellow, and red corals of the South Pacific, and on the ocean floor he’d see a smiling little boy sitting atop a sunken American tank.
“I was not exactly a sane, normal person after having experienced all that,” recalls Cooper, 90. “Frankly I don’t know how my wife [Alberta, now deceased] put up with me. But she understood me.”
Almost 70 years later, however, the terrible memory is fueling what Cooper considers an American redemption. Only recently he learned that many of those who perished at Tarawa were never recovered. Now he’s become a symbol in the effort to bring them home.
The Forgotten Generation
Estimates vary, but of the 74,200 missing Americans from World War II, as many as 500 were lost at Tarawa. Some were swept out to sea. Others were lost in temporary graves that vanished when Navy Seabees built an airstrip after the battle.
Tarawa veterans and their loved ones were once a powerful voice for those who died there. In 1988 they preserved a battle memorial when the Republic of Kiribati wanted to build a new cold-storage facility for Japanese fishing boats. But the question of what happened to the missing Americans faded as their parents, spouses, and siblings aged and passed away.
David Silliman, of Chatham, N.Y., remembers his grandmother riding in Memorial Day parades in memory of her lost son, George Traver, who vanished at Tarawa. Today Traver’s name is engraved on his mother and father’s tombstone in eternal anticipation of the day he finally returns.
Silliman was born nine years after Tarawa, but he was always curious about his missing uncle, and now he’s the family advocate for bringing Traver home. He has submitted family DNA to the military to identify Traver’s body should they find it, and he has attended military briefings for families of the missing.
“They said, ‘Tarawa is very difficult,’” Silliman recalls, of one such briefing. “I still don’t know what they meant by that.”
Nancy Waldenville Brewer, a middle school teacher in Oklahoma City, wants to know the fate of her uncle, Arthur Bonner Waldenville, who disappeared at Tarawa. She has spoken to veterans of the battle but has uncovered few answers. Her late father never fully recovered from the loss of his brother, she says.
“I think it’s a torch that gets passed,” she says. “If there was a recovery, it would heal a wound of my father’s.”
One More Chance at Recovery
After the war, Cooper worked in the public and private sectors before retiring in Malibu, Calif. In 2004 he happened upon a news report about garbage accumulating on the beaches where Americans landed at Tarawa.
Calling it an “unpardonable disgrace,” he wrote 100-plus letters, emails, and faxes to the White House, the military, and his congressional representatives, and yet he received no response. By chance, however, he met a filmmaker, Steven Barber, who had an interest in Tarawa. In February 2008 they traveled together to Betio to create a documentary originally intended to spur a cleanup.
It was Cooper’s first time back since the war. Rusted gun emplacements, ammunition, and the remains of wrecked tanks, boats, and planes still littered the island. He even found human bones. Cooper wept on Red Beach, and he swore bitterly when he saw for himself the heaps of garbage where marines had perished.
During sometimes cantankerous meetings with local officials, Cooper made progress in cleaning up the mess, but he also learned the more disturbing fact that perhaps hundreds of marines remained on the island in unmarked graves.
Some were being unearthed during construction projects. One Australian contractor found a complete skeleton wearing the remains of an American helmet. About nine months after Cooper’s visit, an American nonprofit group, History Flight, announced that a ground-penetrating radar had detected what it claimed to be some 139 missing marines on the island (it later increased its estimate to more than 300).
The lost marines became the focus of Cooper and Barber’s visit. The resulting award-winning documentary, Return to Tarawa: The Leon Cooper Story, followed Cooper during his emotional discovery on the island. Narrated by actor Ed Harris, it aired in April 2009 on the Military Channel (it’s still available online).
The topic hit a nerve, and Cooper was interviewed by CBS, ABC, FOX, CNN, and many publications. Hailed a hero, Cooper received “hundreds” of emails from relatives of missing World War II service members.
He’s learned the downside of drawing attention, however. Some have questioned his role at Tarawa because his statements in the documentary conflicted with a memoir he published in 2003 that says he was AWOL during the battle. Cooper says the memoir was partly fictionalized by a co-author in hopes of making it a film, and he insists that indeed he did participate in the battle. He has officer’s correspondence from December 1943 that indicates he was involved in the landing.
Regardless of the debate, the interest in Tarawa reignited, and the tides for recovery of the missing began to turn.
A few months after the film, Congress passed a resolution affirming the federal government’s responsibility to recover the missing at Tarawa, and in August 2010 a team from the U.S. military’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Commission (JPAC) landed at Betio to search for the missing marines. They found only two Americans, a result that has disappointed Cooper and others, but JPAC has said they plan to return to search for more.
In the meantime, Cooper, still witty and spry, has established a nonprofit organization (MIAs â€“ You Are Forgotten) to collect donations for other film projects on missing World War II service members.
One gets the feeling, however, that he’s put a nightmare to rest. Cooper recalls Tarawa in the days after the battle, when he was transporting wounded marines off Betio. One of the wounded—Cooper guesses he was just a teenager—was moaning so badly that Cooper gave him morphine.
A short while later the man motioned him over. Cooper couldn’t hear what he was saying so he bent down and put his ear to the man’s lips. The dying man’s words were so faint that Cooper couldn’t be sure of what he said, and 67 years later he still wonders. But Cooper thinks he said, “Remember me.”
By Dave Evensen