U.S., Japanese veterans, 95, work to find missing comrades


On Tuesday, Leon Cooper, who is 95 and lives in Malibu, will leave for Japan to meet with Kokichi Nishimura, who is 95 and lives outside Tokyo.

During World War II, the two were enemies, each sent by his country to New Guinea, where they endured some of the bloodiest fighting of the war.

Cooper was a boat group commander taking U.S. assault troops to the shore at New Guinea and elsewhere. Nishimura was an infantryman at an earlier battle in New Guinea called the Kokoda Track and later in Burma.


Now they share a passion: that a decent reckoning, and appropriate honors, be made for their countrymen killed in combat. Each is livid with allegations that his country is not more aggressive in accounting for the fallen.

They have never met. But each felt drawn to compare experiences. Nishimura is frail, and the meeting may take place in a hospital.

In his devotion to finding Japanese — and Australians — killed in New Guinea, Nishimura left behind his business and his family in the late 1970s and moved to New Guinea — now known as Papua New Guinea. With occasional returns to Japan, he remained in New Guinea until his health declined in 2007, forcing a final return to his homeland.

In New Guinea, he acquired the nickname the “Bone Man of Kokoda,” which is the title of a 2008 book about Nishimura written by Australian journalist Charles Happell.

Cooper’s efforts to find and honor the dead from the battle on the atoll of Tarawa were chronicled in the documentary by filmmaker Steven Barber, “Return to Tarawa: the Leon Cooper Story.” Barber is accompanying Cooper to Japan with plans to co-produce, with Matthew Hausle, an updating of the Cooper story, “Return to New Guinea.”

Cooper, in an interview Sunday, said he has heard that Nishimura wants to know if the hatred that Americans once felt for Japanese has subsided.


“My feeling is: ‘How long can you harbor hatred?’ “Cooper said. “I don’t hate the Japanese. Most of the people I hated are dead. I outlived them, which is the best revenge.”

After the war, Nishimura founded a successful engineering firm. Cooper had various business ventures, including founding an early computer company and serving as chief financial officer for several corporations.

Each traces his concern for the remains of those killed to an unchanging sense of duty.

Nishimura has said that when he married his wife after the war, he told her that someday he would return to New Guinea to retrieve the bodies of his comrades. “It was a promise I made to my friends,” he told Hausle last year.

Cooper remembers soldiers in his landing craft, in Tarawa, New Guinea and other battles.

“I know that some of those guys were killed and are still missing,” he said. “I took them across the River Styx into the killing field. It haunts me still.”

Although the Defense Department has recently reorganized its effort to account for the missing, Cooper said the effort is still ineffectual.

“I want our government to live up to its promise not to leave any man behind,” he said. “There are more than 80,000 who remain where they fell. It makes me so mad.”


In an interview with the Japan Times, Nishimura offered similar criticism of the Japanese government. Estimates of Japanese dead unaccounted for during World War II reach into the millions.

“They don’t care; it has always been the same,” he told journalist David McNeill. “Everybody today is against war in Japan, but nobody wants to talk about what happened.”

While in Japan, Cooper hopes to meet with the U.S. and Australian ambassadors. He is especially eager to meet with U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, daughter of John F. Kennedy.

“We share a connection,” he said.

Kennedy’s father’s PT-109 was based at Tulagi, one of the Solomon Islands. Cooper’s ship, the attack transport Harry Lee, stopped briefly at Tulagi — which proved long enough for sailors and soldiers facing combat, including Cooper, to go ashore and get drunk.

The trip to Japan is being underwritten by Gordon Cooper, a nephew of the late astronaut Gordon Cooper. Leon Cooper knew the astronaut but, similar name not withstanding, they were not related.

Cooper plans to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, Japan’s shrine to its war dead, although Cooper has mixed feelings about the shrine, particularly its inclusion of military personnel convicted of war crimes, including Hideki Tojo, Japan’s prime minister during much of the war. Tojo was hanged as a war criminal in 1948.


About Nishimura, Cooper has no mixed feelings.

“Like me, he was sent [to New Guinea] to protect his country,” Cooper said. “But I bet neither of us had such lofty ideas in mind. We just wanted to get the hell out alive.”