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July 22, 2014

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Documentary ‘Return to Tarawa’ brings back WWII memories

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Leila Navidi

Steven C. Barber, photographed in Henderson on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010, is a Summerlin resident who has made a documentary, “Return to Tarawa,” about all the dead Marines left on that island during World War II. His movie prompted Congress to give another $400,000 to seek more of the bodies.

Return to Tarawa

Steve Barber, photographed in Henderson Thursday, October 7, 2010, is a Summerlin resident who has made a documentary, Launch slideshow »

Return to Tarawa trailer

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Officers and personnel of the 2nd U.S. Marine Division who fell in the battle for Tarawa atoll, Gilbert Islands, in November 1943, are buried in this cemetery, shown here on March 20, 1944.

Beyond the Sun

Caught up in work and family, traffic and economic strife, it’s easy to forget what came before. Even a year ago is hard to remember.

So when you meet someone with a memory as sharp as Leon Cooper’s, it can be jarring.

“I was the landing craft officer,” says Cooper, who will be 91 soon. “My job was to bring Marines of the Second Division into Red Beach. There was so much smoke and fire, I couldn’t tell if I was in Red Beach 1, 2, 3 or 9.”

This was Tarawa in 1943, the first major allied attempt to retake strategic Pacific islands from the Japanese during World War II.

Bullets whizzing by his head, Cooper returned time and again from ships with his boat stocked with more fresh-faced troops.

“The smell of decomposing bodies was enough to make me vomit,” says the Navy veteran of six battles. “I’ve never forgotten it. And what will always stay with me is all those kids cut down by Japanese gunfire. And I’ve never forgotten how (expletive) scared I was every time I came to the beach.”

When he met Summerlin resident Steven Barber a few years ago, Cooper’s memory stirred the documentary filmmaker to act.

They traveled to Tarawa and came away in 2008 with a 47-minute documentary, “Return to Tarawa: The Leon Cooper Story.” The movie shows Cooper on beachheads literally covered with garbage, the same place where an estimated 600 missing Americans might have been buried 67 years ago. As many as 1,100 Americans died there over three days, while up to 3,700 Japanese and 1,200 Korean slave laborers also perished. In the documentary, Cooper tries unsuccessfully to persuade the island’s government to clean up the beaches.

Costing about $200,000, the film was sold to the Discovery Channel. In late 2009, Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., got legislation passed to fund a expedition to Tarawa by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command team to unearth dead Americans. Barber went along.

That team returned home in late September after six weeks digging in various spots at depths of 4 to 6 feet. They didn’t find Americans, but the Associated Press has reported that an islander turned over two skeletons believed to be Americans. The team did, according to published reports, unearth a mass grave of Japanese soldiers.

“They came back too early,” says Cooper, who was raised in the Midwest, got into computers after the war, patented some inventions and now lives in Malibu, Calif.

But Barber got footage detailing the search effort. He is trying to raise enough money to finish writing, editing and packaging the film he shot into another documentary.

“We’re not in this to make money,” Barber says, adding that he did not break even on “Return to Tarawa.”

“This is just a really good story,” he says. “It’s an important story. People have forgotten that the men of World War II brought us out of the darkness. They saved the world.”

Barber didn’t hear about Tarawa first from Cooper. He said he was mountain biking in 1997 in Palisades, Calif., and saw actor Eddie Albert, the star well-known for the sitcom “Green Acres,” outside his home and stopped. Albert died in 2005.

Albert was also in Tarawa during the war. Later, Barber returned to Albert’s home and filmed Albert talking about the battle. Ten years passed and Barber happened upon Cooper at a book show.

He saw Cooper with an article about Tarawa, asked if he knew Albert (he did), and they began their relationship.

Barber, 48, had been a cruise ship director in the 1980s, a job that honed his “affinity for old people.”

“I like people over 90 and under 6, everybody else is suspect,” he says, only half-jokingly.

If he finishes the second documentary, he hopes it spurs Congress to spend more money on POW/MIA search efforts.

About his interest in Tarawa, even Barber has a hard time explaining it. Like most people, it’s a place he’d never heard of and couldn’t have cared less about until he met Albert, then Cooper.

Fate? Maybe.

“I’m on this divine path,” he says.

Cooper says what happened at Tarawa is too important and too costly to forget.

Independent from Barber, Cooper wants to make five films “exposing the shame of America — I don’t know what else to call it — where there are tens of thousands of guys who still lie where they fell as long as 70 years in the Pacific.”

He has set up a nonprofit organization (MIAs — You Are Forgotten), with which he expects to raise $1.3 million to make the films.

“After all these years, the government sends people to Tarawa, when we’d been yelling at them to do something for so long,” Cooper says. “And the hundreds who are there, that’s a token compared to (those) whose remains are all over the Pacific. I’m (expletive) angry. That’s the way I feel about things like that.”

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