WWII veteran of Tarawa invasion targets beach again

Times Staff Writer

The last time Leon Cooper saw the tiny Pacific atoll called Tarawa, its beach was littered with bodies.

These days, the scene of one of the United States’ bloodiest World War II battles is littered with trash.

So from 5,000 miles away, the Malibu man has launched a beach cleanup campaign.


“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 Red Beach.

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 Great Britain’s Gilbert Islands colony. Today its string of two dozen islets is included in a rapidly growing independent nation, the Republic of Kiribati.

As its population has increased, so has Kiribati’s importation of packaged foods and goods. Because Tarawa’s islets are tiny and only a few feet above sea level, there is no place to bury inorganic trash. So much of it ends up in its reef-sheltered lagoon -- where it washes up on the beach.

The few who travel to Tarawa are jolted by what they see.

Simon Donner, a Princeton University scientist who went there in 2005 to study climate change, encountered “endless festering piles of garbage” along with rusting World War II relics and discarded appliances.

“Tarawa doesn’t look poor. It looks like civilization after the apocalypse, after the nuclear holocaust,” Donner said this week. “Most of the garbage ends up on the beach -- bottles, food wrappers, old cars, human waste.”

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 New Zealand conservationist, Alice Leney, had initiated a recycling program on Tarawa. But the beach where 63 years ago so many died remains a dump.

“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 Malibu’s popular Zuma Beach.

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.

Tarawa was hammered before the invasion by the Navy destroyers’ big guns. Second Marine Division troops who were waiting to hit the beach were told that the enemy would probably be wiped out by the time they got ashore.

“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.

A Los Angeles man, Marine Lt. William D. Hawkins, 30, became the battle’s first hero when he led a squad of men to wipe out the Japanese machine gun nest on the 600-yard pier. Shot in the hand and then in the chest, he continued up the beach and used hand grenades to destroy several enemy pillboxes before being fatally wounded in a burst of Japanese shellfire.

American military officials honored him several weeks later by naming Tarawa’s airstrip, which had been the focus of the invasion, Hawkins Field. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

Cooper survived the Tarawa battle unscathed, as he did the later invasions of Kwajalein, Aitape, Guam, Lingayen Gulf and Iwo Jima. He stayed at Tarawa a week after the battle as remains of the dead were being removed from the beach.

He thinks that the U.S. government needs to clean the beach once more. And while they’re at it, he wants officials to move a Tarawa war memorial closer to the spot where 3,407 Americans were killed or wounded.

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-Los Angeles) has expressed support. But he pointed out that any beach cleanup should be accompanied by a long-term plan to deal with the island garbage disposal issue.

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 Fiji to work with Kiribati’s government on long-range beach preservation.

“It would be a tribute to our veterans and a benefit to the Kiribati people,” Waxman said.

In his book, Cooper concluded that the Tarawa invasion was a mistake. He quotes one of the battle’s main leaders, who wondered “why two nations would spend so much for so little.”

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.”