YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — When WWII veteran Leon Cooper returned to Tarawa in 2008, memories of the bloody three-day battle became clear again.
Most unforgettable are the hundreds of fallen Marines and sailors killed during the battle, many of whom Cooper transported to the island during the November 1943 assault.
“It tears me up because I saw so many of these kids die,” the 90-year-old former naval landing craft officer said last week. “And they deserve to be brought home.”
Thanks to “Return to Tarawa: The Leon Cooper Story” — a 2009 documentary narrated by actor Ed Harris that airs on the Military Channel — that process has begun.
After seeing the film, Rep. Dan Lipinski, R-Ill., pushed an amendment through Congress that moved up Tarawa on the military’s priority list of missions to recover the remains of some 84,000 troops who have died while fighting overseas. The legislation also called on the military to step up its recovery missions by 2015.
Military records indicate the remains of 300 to 500 U.S. troops are still on the Tarawa.
The military’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command – the Hawaii-based unit tasked with such repatriation missions – conducted a six-week excavation at Tarawa in August and September. The first search yielded the remains of two U.S. servicemembers, as well the remains of Japanese soldiers killed in the battle.
“We’re incredibly happy with what we found,” said Lee Tucker, a JPAC spokesman who accompanied the civilian-military research team during the dig. “Those are two U.S. servicemembers we can hopefully identify and return to their families.”
Additionally, the team was able to rule out certain areas on the island, he said.
“We basically know where not to go next time,” Tucker said Wednesday. Ruling out sites is “huge” in terms of setting up a second dig.
Lipinski said he was disappointed more remains were not found, but has been informed by JPAC that the team would return to Tarawa next year.
“That gives me hope, and I think it shows that we don’t leave anyone behind,” said Lipinski, who wants to see more excavations.
“We’re working with Congress and the (Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office) to figure out exactly how we’re going to do this,” Tucker said.
But to Cooper, any delay in returning to Tarawa is inexcusable. The problem is not JPAC, he said, but rather the brass controlling its purse strings.
“I don’t know why our government hasn’t understood the obligation our country has to bring back the guys that fought and died in WWII,” Cooper said.
Cooper initially went to Tarawa in 2008 with Los Angeles filmmaker Steven C. Barber to document reported pollution plaguing the battle site. But after hearing from locals of the mass graves thought to contain some of the 1,113 Marines and sailors who died there, he left with even more concerns.
“We are always very supportive of the boys and now girls who go out there to war,” he said. “And then we forget them.”
Barber accompanied JPAC to Tarawa this summer and plans to release a second documentary chronicling the tedious search for the missing troops.
“It’s this forgotten battleground” where the shores are still dotted with ordnance and a B-24 bomber that never made it back to the United States, said Barber. He hopes the film will generate more interest and subsequent funding to continue the search for the men who perished there nearly 70 years ago.
“These guys didn’t a chance to live like you and me,” said Barber, who said both his grandfathers fought in WWII. “The least we can do is bring them home.”