Tarawa has become a different sort of battlefield

Photos show Leon Cooper in his Navy uniform and a child playing in the trash on Tarawa.
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

A Malibu man’s personal crusade to clean up a trash-strewn beach 5,000 miles away will gain national attention this week when it is the focus of a cable television documentary.

For more than three years, Leon Cooper has sought to pressure authorities into removing litter from Red Beach on the Pacific atoll called Tarawa -- site of one of the United States’ bloodiest World War II battles.

The beach, which Cooper calls “hallowed ground,” has become a dumping ground covered by garbage, generated by the fast-growing population of the South Pacific island nation of Kiribati.


The 47-minute account of Cooper’s campaign will be aired at 10 p.m. Friday on the Military Channel and be repeated Saturday at 1, 3 and 9 a.m. and noon.

Cooper, 89, was a young Navy ensign who was commander of a group of landing craft that ferried U.S. 2nd Marine Division troops to Red Beach during the November 1943 invasion. During brutal fighting that lasted 76 hours, 1,115 Americans were killed and 2,292 were wounded. About 4,800 Japanese fighters also died.

“The piles of garbage are an insult to the guys who died there for their country,” Cooper said. “This is how we honor those who fought and died for our nation during the Pacific war?”

The trash problem is acute because of Kiribati’s reliance on imported packaged foods and goods. Tarawa’s tiny islets are only a few feet above sea level, and there is no place to bury inorganic trash. So it’s dumped into a reef-sheltered lagoon where it eventually washes up on the beach.

Last year Cooper returned to Tarawa with Venice filmmaker Steven C. Barber. Footage of Cooper walking among piles of plastic containers, bags of trash and other debris is juxtaposed with combat footage of invading Marines under fire on the same beach.

Actor Ed Harris narrates the documentary, called “Return to Tarawa, the Leon Cooper Story.”

Barber said he was jarred by the condition of the beach and by remnants of the battle still found on the atoll.

“There were bones everywhere,” he said. “They tried to recover all of the remains of Americans who died, but there are still MIAs. There are still family members who want remains found.”

Cooper said he returned to Tarawa “with a great deal of reluctance” for the filming. “I never wanted to see the place again. I’m still sometimes awakened by nightmares from that battle,” he said.

Counting the cost of the documentary, the retired computer company executive so far has spent more than $120,000 from his savings on his cleanup campaign, he said. He remains hopeful that U.S. lawmakers will eventually step forward to help permanently maintain the beachfront battlefield.

“The title of the film probably should be ‘Return to Tarawa: America’s Shame,’ ” he said.