On March 23, 1943, Wayne G. Cooper, a senior at LaSalle High School in Niagara Falls, celebrated his 18th birthday by driving into Buffalo and enlisting in the Navy.
“I wanted to serve my country and be an electrician. I realized my dream. They called me to service in August of that year after I’d graduated,” Cooper said.
And less than a year later, he fought in the pivotal Battle of Saipan, on a strategic Pacific island with landing strips that would make it possible for America’s B-29 bombers to fly nonstop to and back from Japan.
“There was no place to stop for refueling, that’s why we needed that island,” Cooper said.
The brutal fight for Saipan lasted a month and the 70th anniversary of its start falls on June 15.
“The first night of the invasion, we took in several wounded Marines and we asked them how the invasion was going, and they told us they lost about half their division,” Cooper recalled. “It was very sad to think of all the lives that were lost, and it was only the first night of the invasion.”
He said he counted his blessings that he was on the ship, even if he was a sitting duck for enemy bombers.
“I was an electrician on a repair ship. We repaired everything from battleships down to landing crafts,” Cooper said. “We even repaired our own ship during the Battle of Saipan. We were hit with an anti-personnel bomb that was loaded with steel shrapnel.”
The bomb caused minor damage to the ship when it exploded at about 1 a.m. June 21, but it killed two sailors and wounded 11 others.
“We had been called to our battle stations at 12:30 a.m. and when the bomb hit, it made me realize we were in a war,” Cooper said.
Japanese “Betties” flew overhead dropping more bombs and causing heavy damage to the rest of the fleet, while troops on Saipan fought an entrenched enemy. But on July 9, the battle was won and B-29s had a place to land.
But there was no relief.
On July 24, the Battle of Tinian began in order to secure additional airstrips.
“We had a lot of B-29s and needed more airstrips,” Cooper said.
The first night of that battle was something of a repeat of what had happened at Saipan. The USS Norman Scott, a destroyer, tied up beside Cooper’s ship, the USS Phaon, and wounded were once again taken aboard.
“We had doctors on our ship and we provided the primary care for the wounded, and then the next day we placed the wounded on a hospital ship,” Cooper said.
And once again, the Americans won. Tinian was taken on Aug. 1.
Shortly after that, the Phaon’s crew was granted shore leave, be it ever so short.
“We were allowed to go on shore at Saipan and play baseball and have some recreation,” Cooper said. “It was just for one day and I was very grateful. I’d been on my ship the whole time I was out there.”
But there was a war to be fought and plenty of work.
“We repaired ships during the battles of Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the Philippines, right up until the end of the war.”
After 29 months at sea and about 2,000 repair jobs, Cooper and his crew mates returned to the United States and he was discharged from Lido Beach, Long Island. He took the train back to Niagara Falls and worked with his father, who had started Cooper Signs in 1922.
“I had worked for him in high school and worked for him again after the war when we started getting calls for neon signs, which were becoming popular. I went to the Neon School of New York on the GI Bill and came back and built a sign company shop on Military Road in the Falls.”
For the next several decades, Cooper prospered as a sign maker, retiring in 1987. His son, John A. Cooper Sr., now operates the business.
Among the highlights of his work with neon, the elder Cooper said he designed and built an elephant balancing on its head outside Honey’s, a Pine Avenue pizzeria; a second elephant sign with a crown on its head promoting “Jack’s Used Cars”; and Page’s Whistle Pig neon sign with a pig whistling neon musical notes.
In retirement, Cooper said he keeps busy woodworking and enjoying his family.
And he also takes time to gratefully reflect on having survived the war.
“I thank the Lord,” he says, “for keeping me safe through those many dangerous battles.”