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WWII Vet Leads Effort to Clean Up South Pacific Battle Site


Monday is Memorial Day in the United States, a holiday set aside to honor the nation's war dead. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has the story of one man's effort to honor his fallen comrades from World War II.

In November of 1943, U.S. forces invaded the small atoll of Tarawa in the South Pacific.

It was the first time that Americans in the Pacific faced serious Japanese opposition to an amphibious landing.

U.S. Navy veteran Leon Cooper remembers. He was piloting one of the landing craft that took Marines to the beaches of what Americans came to call 'Bloody Tarawa'.

"As I say, it was a nightmare and repeated many times in dreams that I have had for some years afterwards of watching guys literally being torn to pieces by Japanese gunfire and watching mortars land in the areas where the boats were coming in, fortunately not mine, landing in the boats and killing everybody in the boats. And I could see body parts flying everywhere," he recalled.

During the three-day battle, nearly 1,000 Americans were killed and more than 2,000 wounded. Only 17 of the 2,600 Japanese troops who defended the island survived.

Leon Cooper went on to take part in other amphibious landings during World War II, but he never forgot the vicious fighting at Tarawa.

"I had a number of invasions afterwards, winding up with Iwo Jima, but Tarawa will stand in my mind as the worst experience in my life, young or old," he noted. "These kids were dying in my boat, some in my arms, as I was trying to comfort them and their wounds."

Cooper is 86 now, but the memories of his fallen comrades remain vivid and in order to pay tribute to them, he has a new crusade.

In recent years, the beach at Tarawa has become fouled by garbage and trash.

Tarawa is part of the island nation of Kiribati. Cooper has pressed the government to clean up the beach out of respect for the men who died there. He also wants a battle monument to those who died at Tarawa moved closer to the beach where the fighting occurred.

"At the very least, remove the garbage from the area where the landings have taken place and install at that location a decent memorial to the guys who fought and died there," he said.

Cooper has also appealed to Congress and the Bush administration, asking the United States to help clean up the beach at Tarawa. So far, he has gotten little response, except for one congressman from his home state of California.

Leon Cooper says the response is frustrating, but he is not giving up.

"That is what Memorial Day is really all about, to recall what so many guys, 18 million plus, who were involved in the war that literally saved our civilization," he said.

Navy veteran Leon Cooper has also written a book about his wartime experiences called 90 Day Wonder - Darkness Remembered.

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