World War II Veteran, Chicago Native Honored at White Sox Game
Leon Cooper can't forget those who didn't return from World War II.
Cooper, 96, is a Chicago native who lives in Malibu, Calif., and an advocate for the repatriation of the remains of thousands of U.S. soldiers who are buried on the Pacific islands where they fought and died.
"(They) literally lie where they fell in unmarked graves," Cooper said. "The real hurt here is to the survivors, the next of kin who know nothing whatsoever about their loved ones, not even the circumstances of his death."
Cooper returned to Chicago to be recognized Saturday at U.S. Cellular Field as the White Sox's Hero of the Game. He was given five military medals he never claimed, said White Sox spokeswoman Christine O'Reilly.
"The fact that Leon's from Chicago, we thought it would be a terrific opportunity to welcome him home," O'Reilly said.
Cooper grew up in Humboldt Park and attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He worked for the U.S. government after graduating and volunteered for naval service after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he said.
He was a landing craft officer in six Pacific battles, commanding the Higgins boats that brought troops, munitions and supplies to shore. The battle Cooper speaks of most is the Battle of Tarawa, which took place over three days in November 1943, on a tiny atoll about halfway between Hawaii and Australia. It was one of the fiercest battles of World War II, in which more than 1,000 U.S. Marines and nearly 5,000 Japanese soldiers were killed.
"All I can recall as a kid — I was in my early 20s at the time — was the aching sadness of guys who left my boat and fell under Japanese gunfire," Cooper said. "I still have flashes every now and then. Every now and then something will happen that will bring back painful memories of things that I experienced at that time when I was a kid."
In 2007, Cooper met director Steven Barber, and the pair made a 2008 documentary, "Return to Tarawa: The Leon Cooper Story," which was sold to the Discovery Channel's military channel. It was the first of several films Cooper and Barber made together about the search for those soldiers whose remains were never found.
"When that film was shown, I got hundreds of emails, letters, telephone calls from people who were the next of kin of the guys who died during the Battle of Tarawa," Cooper said.
Since then, he's been an advocate for the repatriation of some 500 service members whose bodies were never recovered from Tarawa, and the tens of thousands of other Americans who died in World War II, the Vietnam War and the Korean War but were never returned home.
His work has caught the attention of politicians pushing for repatriation, including former Ald. Jim Balcer, 11th, and U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski.
In 2009, Lipinski authored an amendment to a defense authorization bill in Congress that called on the Pentagon "to undertake all feasible efforts to recover, identify and return" soldiers' bodies from Tarawa.
The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (now the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency) in 2010 conducted a search at Tarawa and recovered the bodies of two American servicemen.
In a statement, Lipinski praised Cooper for his activism.
But Cooper has criticized the Department of Defense, saying it hasn't done enough to bring back the many remains that are still on Pacific islands. He and Barber have been raising money for more film projects on the matter, which led Barber to the White Sox.
The team recognized Cooper with a pregame ceremony Saturday and the traditional Hero of the Game ceremony in the third inning.
"These awards are long overdue," Balcer said. "(Cooper's) work in keeping this issue alive in the public is very, very important. The man has a tremendous amount of energy."
Over the years since Cooper returned from war, he said he's lived a varied life. He and his late wife had five children, and he held jobs in the federal government and in the computer industry, where he became an inventor and businessman. Cooper said he feels a duty to help bring home his comrades and doesn't consider himself a hero.
"This is keeping him alive," Barber said. "It's giving him a purpose."
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