site where many Marines died is now a trash dump. Leon Cooper of
Bob Pool, Times Staff Writer
March 16, 2007
last time Leon Cooper saw the tiny Pacific atoll called
These days, the scene of one of the
So from 5,000 miles away, the
"The piles of garbage are an insult to the guys who died there for their country," Cooper said. "That beach is hallowed ground."
Cooper is certain of that. In November 1943, he commanded a group of landing craft that carried invading U.S. Marines to a stretch of Tarawa shoreline known as
During 76 hours of brutal fighting, 1,115 Americans were killed and 2,292 others wounded. About 4,800 Japanese fighters also died.
At the time, Tarawa was part of
As its population has increased, so has
The few who travel to
Simon Donner, a
Cooper learned of the trash problem two years ago while doing research for his recently published book, "The War in the Pacific — A Retrospective." He discovered that a
"The lagoon has become a gigantic sewer," Cooper said. "The place where I saw all these kids literally getting cut to pieces in front of me has turned into a stagnant cesspool."
Cooper, 87, is a retired computer company executive who lives on a hill above
But in 1943 he was a young Navy boat group commander in charge of 20 landing craft carried by the transport ship Harry Lee. His job was to make certain that the small boats stayed in line and moved simultaneously toward the shore as they ferried invasion troops and equipment from ships. His wooden "Higgins boats" featured blunt-nosed bows, lowered to serve as unloading ramps when the craft were nudged up to the shoreline.
"But as I stood on my boat's engine box waving flags to line up the rest of the boats, I heard a sound like angry bees around my head — they were shooting at the crazy guy waving the flags," Cooper said of the Japanese defenders.
"Soon I was seeing guys literally being shredded to pieces. Some of them died right there in my boat."
Cooper made about 10 beach runs, under heavy fire each time. "The Japanese were on a half-sunk freighter in the lagoon, shooting at us as we came in. They were sitting on a long pier shooting at us."
The scene was chaotic. Marines were mowed down as they scrambled off landing craft. Others were pinned down on the beach by unrelenting gunfire from enemy marksmen who were hunkered down in sturdy bunkers that had survived the warships' artillery assault.
American military officials honored him several weeks later by naming
Cooper survived the Tarawa battle unscathed, as he did the later invasions of Kwajalein, Aitape, Guam, Lingayen Gulf and
He thinks that the
So far, though, Cooper said he had received no response to his overtures to the White House, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) wrote to tell him that "we understand your concerns," he said.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-
Last year Waxman saluted Cooper's campaign in remarks inserted in the Congressional Record. The congressman suggested that the trash might "create an opportunity for the 2nd Marine Division to restore the beach to a more appropriate and respectable condition." He encouraged the U.S. Embassy in
"It would be a tribute to our veterans and a benefit to the
In his book, Cooper concluded that the
Nonetheless, Cooper does not plan to ease up on the beach cleanup.
"I feel I owe it," he said, "to those guys who died there."