WWII vet presses for cleanup of garbage on Pacific atoll battleground
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.