Tennessee Marine killed in WWII to be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery
Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn. March 5, 2022
(Tribune News Service) — Chattanooga resident and Marine Corps Cpl. Thomas H. Cooper’s journey from a World War II battlefield cemetery on a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean back to his family in the U.S. will end with his burial with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on Thursday.
His family called him by his middle name, Harley, and many of his relatives will come together at Arlington to honor him, some meeting each other for the first time.
Cooper was killed at 22 in the Central Pacific in November 1943, a member of Company A, 2nd Amphibious Tractor Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, Fleet Marine Force, which landed against stiff Japanese resistance on the small island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll of the Gilbert Islands, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
Over several days more than 1,000 marines and sailors were killed, including Cooper, and more than 2,000 were wounded in what was deemed a U.S. military success, according to the agency.
Cooper’s family now is scattered and disconnected, and those who knew the young corporal have passed away.
To Cooper’s daughter — Laguna Woods, California, resident Virginia Cooper Frogel — her father is a mystery, someone she never met. The upcoming service at Arlington is a source of uncertainty for her.
“It’ll be very meaningful for my kids,” Frogel said Tuesday telephone interview. “I think that it’s closure and history, family history, and I think it’s important to them to know that a member of our family lost his life in a war that happened before I was born and way, way before they were born.”
As for herself, she said, “it’s kind of an emotional upheaval because I never knew my father. He was killed in November and I was born in March, so I really had no ties.
“I didn’t know him, I didn’t know any stories about him, my mother knew very little about him,” she said.
It’s a loss that cuts deeply, even 78 years later.
“I have a lot of anger about war,” Frogel said.
War takes so much from everyone, it seems an unfair burden on humanity, she said.
“I just feel like war shouldn’t happen and here we’ve got another one in the Ukraine right now,” she said. “I feel for all the families who have lost their loved ones to war.”
The pandemic created a hitch in plans in 2020 and led to the cancellation of a couple of funeral dates, Rachel Frogel Lukens, 45, of San Diego, California, said Wednesday in a telephone interview. Lukens was born in Chattanooga and is Cooper’s granddaughter.
She said she and her brother, Jason Frogel, pressed for the service at Arlington.
“When the news arrived, I was ready to get on the plane for Chattanooga to try to track down all these people I really have never known about before, then it all came to a screeching halt as everything shut down with the pandemic,” Lukens said. “I hadn’t really revisited anything until Arlington gave us a new date, and it all came together rather quickly. And now it’s like, OK, here it’s finally happening.”
As tentative plans were made since 2020, Lukens enjoyed reconnecting with family in Tennessee, she said.
“It’s been nice. My second cousin, Kim McCormick, and I have been communicating over the past couple of years. That’s been a treat,” she said. “I’m really excited to meet her.”
Like Frogel, Cooper’s only living sibling, a half-brother, has no memories of Harley Cooper because of the timing of his birth.
“I was a baby when he was alive, so I didn’t really know him,” the corporal’s half-brother, Apison, Tennessee, resident Larry Cooper said Wednesday in a telephone interview.
Larry Cooper remembers his mother and father talking some about the brother who never came home, but it’s a distant, far away memory.
“I don’t remember a lot,” the 82-year-old said.
But Larry Cooper said the family left behind by his half-brother was well-known in East Chattanooga in the middle of the last century.
“My father owned a restaurant in Chattanooga for years before he sold it. It was called ‘Mickey’s Place.’ It was at Fourth Avenue and 23rd,” he said. The place is now the Hunan Wok.
Larry Cooper said the father rarely spoke of the missing son, but the weight of not knowing what happened to him was apparent.
“I know the family cared about him, and he was missed,” he said.
Thursday’s service at Arlington will be a fitting farewell, he said, and he wished he could attend.
Cooper’s death, 1943
Cooper was born Nov. 2, 1921, in Omaha, Nebraska. His remains were accounted for on Aug. 9, 2019, by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency after being identified from among remains of 94 Tarawa unknowns disinterred from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known as the Punchbowl, in Honolulu, according to a statement the agency released in February 2020.
Cooper enlisted in Nashville on Sept. 18, 1940, according to the East Tennessee Veterans Memorial Association. He died in “an undisclosed theater of operations,” according to his death notice in the Dec. 25, 1943, edition of the Chattanooga News-Free Press.
The confirmation of his death, published on the front page on Jan. 11, 1944, listed the family’s home in the 2600 block of East 46th Street in Chattanooga and noted Cooper once worked at Richmond Hosiery Mill.
He was the son of Thomas G. and Alline Patterson Cooper and the brother of Katherine Brogden, Betty Sue Huckabee, Mickey and Jerry Cooper, all of Chattanooga, and Bobby Cooper, who at the time was serving in the U.S. Navy, the notice states. He also was survived by half-brother Larry Cooper.
Harley Cooper and his wife, Rachel Campbell Cooper, who was from Wellington, New Zealand, met at a dance at the Jewish Community Center there while he was on a stopover, according to Frogel.
Ringgold, Georgia, resident Marjorie Cooper, 87, who was married to Harley Cooper’s younger brother, Jerry, said she remembers how the missing brother weighed on the family he left behind.
“They all stressed over it, of course, and talked about it through the years, but they didn’t have that much time with him either; he was so young when he went in,” she said. “I know it grieved his father really bad.”
At one point, she remembered, there was a family story of military officials contacting the Coopers to offer some kind of “remains” but there was no certainty at all of who it really was, she said. The family wasn’t interested, she said. It had to be certain.
It was a phone call from a cousin of the Cooper brothers that changed everything.
“His cousin Larry Ward is the one that really got it going,” she said. “Jerry got a phone call from him and they were talking constantly and Larry was constantly getting this paperwork, forwarding on to Jerry.”
The government officials wanted DNA.
“Jerry was ready to do that,” she said. “He gave the DNA, and that’s when they said it was a match.”
Sadly, Jerry Cooper died in 2015 before his older brother was officially accounted for.
Cousin provides link
Ward, 79, who lives in Colorado, said by phone on Friday that a military family group called Chief Rick Stone & Family Foundation put him in touch with Marine Corps officials in Washington, D.C., several years back. The officials said they thought they had identified a family member’s remains in Hawaii. He knew there were family members in the Chattanooga area, so he called them.
“Harley at the time had one full brother, Jerry,” Ward recalled. “I told Jerry, if he would, they needed his DNA, and I sent mine in.”
Ward said that was the last he heard from the Marine Corps but he was glad to learn later that he’d help make the link.
It’s been decades since Ward and the family’s “ Chattanooga group,” as he referred to it, had been together.
“I met that group in 1957 or ‘58 when we took a trip down from Colorado to Florida to see Uncle Grady, my grandmother’s brother, and that’s when I met the group in and around Chattanooga,” Ward said. “Then Larry Cooper made a trip to Colorado to visit us. I want to say that was in the 1980s or early-’90s.”
Ward said he is happy the service at Arlington will reunite some of the family, though he won’t be there.
More to the story
Cooper was Nashville resident Kim McCormick’s great uncle, she said Tuesday in a telephone interview. She’s excited to meet some her family and hopes to catch up.
“I knew Harley Cooper’s father, he was my great-grandfather, and he died when I was little. He kept looking for [Harley] for decades. I know mother said he’d talk about Harley all the time,” McCormick said, noting there were family ties all around Chattanooga in those days.
She said Mickey Cooper’s restaurant, “Mickey’s Place” — which existed in the years after Cooper was killed — was eventually sold to become the iconic “ Holder’s Restaurant,” owned for more than 30 years by George Holder, who died in 2010.
McCormick said she wishes Jerry Cooper was alive to see his brother honored at Arlington.
Some other gaps and details in Cooper’s history were filled by research performed by New Yorker Geoffrey Roecker, who has an online site dedicated to U.S. Marines missing in action and their stories. The site, missingmarines.com, details some portions of Cooper’s life and service.
According to Roecker’s research, Cooper, his older sister Katherine and his parents moved frequently early on, first living in Georgia and then in Tennessee. Roecker used military records, National Archives and talked to family members when the identification was made in 2020.
Once enlisted, Cooper was sent to Parris Island for training, then to the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida, but instead of flight school, Cooper “worked as a specialist carpenter and painter, feet planted squarely on the ground,” Roecker wrote.
“In late 1941, around the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Cooper was transferred to Dunedin, Florida, for training as an amphibian tractor crewman,” Roecker wrote. “He first learned the craft of a gunner, but showed some mechanical aptitude and in January 1942 was promoted to corporal and, possibly, reassigned as a driver. Corporal Cooper’s Company A would ship overseas in July 1942 and be among the first ‘alligator’ Marines to see combat during the Guadalcanal landings the following month.”
Roecker also uncovered some details about Cooper’s romance that followed the end of that fighting.
“When the campaign ended, they traveled to New Zealand for training, rest and recreation. Many Marines fell for the local ‘Kiwi’ girls, and Cooper was no exception,” Roecker wrote. “He married his girlfriend in 1943.”
Science brings Cooper home
In November 1943, Cooper was fighting on the small island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll in an attempt to secure the island, according to the accounting agency. The Japanese were virtually annihilated in the fighting.
Despite the heavy casualties suffered, military success in the battle of Tarawa was considered a huge victory for the U.S. because the Gilbert Islands provided the Pacific Fleet a platform for launching assaults on the Marshall and Caroline islands, advancing their Central Pacific Campaign against Japan, according to agency officials.
In the immediate aftermath of the fighting on Tarawa, officials said, U.S. service members who died in the battle were buried in a number of battlefield cemeteries on the island.
The 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company conducted remains recovery operations on Betio between 1946 and 1947, but Cooper’s remains were not identified then, officials said.
In March 1980, the Central Identification Laboratory, a predecessor to the accounting agency, sent officials to Betio Island to receive skeletal remains recovered during a construction project, officials said. Of the three sets recovered, two were identified.
The third was declared unidentifiable and buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. Cooper lay unaccounted for again, but his brother’s DNA would finally come into play.
In 2016, the accounting agency disinterred the remains of 94 Tarawa unknowns from the Honolulu cemetery for identification. The remains were sent to a laboratory for analysis, officials said. In 2019, advances in forensic techniques led to the identification of that third set of remains as Cooper.
Lukens said she hasn’t attended a military funeral but sought out some videos online after her children asked what the service would be like.
“I definitely got choked up just watching any footage that we saw, even not having a connection to the person,” she said. “I can’t even fathom what it’s going to feel like to know that we’re actually connected to this person that’s being honored.”
Lukens said her mom — Harley Cooper’s only daughter — has the courage to go to Arlington to face the past.
“My mom is definitely a very stoic person and has been my whole life,” she said. “She’s very upbeat and positive and doesn’t want to focus on emotional things. I think this is going to kind of force her to look into that hole in her life.”
Cooper’s service at Arlington is set for 10:30 a.m. Thursday.
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