WWII vet presses for cleanup of garbage on Pa­cific atoll bat­tle­ground

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Jen­nifer Harper

Leon Cooper is still look­ing af­ter his Leath­er­necks.

Charged with fer­ry­ing U.S. Marines to the cen­tral Pa­cific atoll of Tarawa dur­ing one of the blood­i­est bat­tles of World War II nearly 64 years ago, Mr. Cooper to­day is bat­tling to clean up the is­land, which is over­run with garbage.

As a 23-year-old Navy com­man­der, he had a hair-rais­ing, heart­break­ing task ahead of him. Mr. Cooper com­manded a sturdy fleet of 20 Hig­gins boats — wooden land­ing craft with snub-nosed bows and drop fronts that fer­ried troops from trans­port ships to Tarawa’s shore on Nov. 20, 1943.

Three days of fight­ing fol­lowed, and 1,001 Marines died on the beaches — or on the boats. An ad­di­tional 2,296 were wounded.

“I saw guys get cut to pieces by Ja­panese fire. I brought out the dy­ing and the wounded,” Mr. Cooper re­called.

Now 87, he clearly re­mem­bers the chaos of 10 trips he made from the USS Harry Lee to the la­goons and beaches where about 4,000 well-equipped Ja­panese sol­diers waited in bunkers. In the end, only 17 Ja­panese — one of­fi­cer and 16 en­listed men — sur­vived, leav­ing Amer­i­can troops all the more wary as they headed for Iwo Jima three months later.

An­other fight looms, how­ever. From his home in Cal­i­for­nia, Mr. Cooper is en­gaged in a new bat­tle of Tarawa. That same hal­lowed beach is now strewn with trash, the la­goon fouled with waste. It’s too much for the vet­eran: He wants it cleaned up to honor the me­mory of the fallen.

“The piles of garbage, such as bro­ken bot­tles, food wrap­pers and hu­man waste that re­main there are an in­sult to the me­mory of the Amer­i­cans who fought and died for our coun­try,” Mr. Cooper said.

“Where there were once hun­dreds of Marines, there are now mil­lions of plas­tic bags, crushed pa­per boxes and crum­pled cans. This is sa­cred ground, not a dump­ing ground,” he added.

Mod­ern life has caught up with Tarawa. Now part of the 24 small is­lands that make up the in­de­pen­dent Repub­lic of Kiri­bati, Tarawa has nowhere to dis­pose of its refuse and cast-offs, par­tic­u­larly food pack­ag­ing and con­tain­ers.

The garbage has com­pro­mised a me­mo­rial to the Marines.

“A mon­u­ment to the Marines has been in­stalled some dis­tance from the beaches. The garbage piles have pre­vented the mon­u­ment from be­ing lo­cated where the prin­ci­pal land­ings took place, on Red Beach,” Mr. Cooper said.

He be­came aware of the prob­lem two years ago while re­search­ing his­toric ma­te­rial for three per­sonal mem­oirs of his ex­pe­ri­ences in the Pa­cific. He hap­pened upon an As­so­ci­ated Press pho­to­graph of cur­rent-day Tarawa, de­pict­ing a boy squat­ting on a pile of garbage on the his­toric bat­tle­ground.

Mr. Cooper has be­come fierce about it since then, though he doesn’t blame the sit­u­a­tion on the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion and their lim­ited pub­lic re­sources. In­stead, he has doggedly con­tacted “the usual sus­pects in Wash­ing­ton,” look­ing for cleanup as­sis­tance from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the White House and as­sorted law­mak­ers. He’s got­ten lit­tle re­sponse so far. There has been some help from the New Zealand branch of Green­peace. The group has be­gun plac­ing re­cy­cling bar­rels around Tarawa. Ac­cord­ing to Mr. Cooper, one of­fi­cial ex­plained the group’s mo­ti­va­tion with the sim­ple phrase, “You Yanks did so much for us dur­ing World War II.”

Mr. Cooper has gar­nered some in­ter­est from a pair of Cal­i­for­nia Democrats. Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein and Rep. Henry A. Wax­man have ex­pressed their sup­port for his project, with Mr. Wax­man sug­gest­ing in the Con­gres­sional Record that the 2nd Marine Di­vi­sion hit the Tarawa beach one more time, this time on a cleanup mis­sion.

Mr. Cooper hopes to at least raise pub­lic aware­ness about the sul­lied sands be­fore the 64th an­niver­sary of the bat­tle of “Bloody Tarawa” in lit­tle more than two weeks. He also hopes to one day re­turn to the atoll him­self, and con­tin­ues to blog about his ef­forts on his Web site (www.90day­won­der.net). He also can be reached at P.O. Box 6030, Mal­ibu, Calif. 90265.

“I owe it to th­ese guys, to the guys that died,” Mr. Cooper said.

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