GEORGE F. COOPER - ONCE A
MARINE, ALWAYS A MARINE
By Jerry R. Barksdale
Sunday evening, December 7, 1941.
George Cooper, halfback for the Athens "Golden Eagles" wheeled his
'39 Ford into the parking lot at Parke & Speake and killed the
ignition. He and two buddies had spent the afternoon at Hatfield
Lake checking out girls. They got out of the car and entered the
small cafe attached to the station, a favorite hangout for Athens
High School athletes.
"The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor!" Jack Parke, the proprietor
blurted out. Cooper was stunned, then angry. He wanted action. The
next summer, his front tooth missing after being spiked out during
the Athens-Decatur game, Cooper dropped out of high school and
joined the Marines. In September 1942, he departed by train to
Birmingham for induction.
After completing 13 weeks of boot camp, Cooper was sent to Camp
Matthews, California, for Amphibian Tractor Training assigned to the
4th Division and soon sailed for war.
The target was Kwajalein, a boomerang shaped island in the Marshall
chain. The Marines had already captured Guadalcanal, Bougainville
and Tarawa in their island hopping toward Japan.
At sunrise on February 1, 1944, the battle wagons Mississippi,
Pennsylvania and New Mexico opened up on Kwajalein with their big
guns. Airplanes from the carriers Enterprise, Yorktown and
Belleauwood flew forty-four sorties, strafing and bombing the
island. Firing lifted and the first wave of Marines streamed toward
Red Beach in Amtracs, including Cooper. Fighting was vicious and by
the end of the fourth day, the Marines had overrun the island.
Cooper came through the ordeal unscathed.
The next target was Roi-Namur, where the Japanese had built an
airfield. After 24 hours of naval bombardment, the once green island
was rendered practically devoid of vegetation. Only a few lonely
coconut palms remained on the littered beaches. When the bombardment
lifted, hundreds of Amtrac, loaded with Marines sped toward the
beaches. Again, Cooper was among them.
That night, under cover of rain and darkness, the Japanese launched
a banzai attack. They were repelled in hand-to-hand fighting.
Marines overran the island in little more than 24 hours. Four Medals
of Honor were awarded to the 4th Division Marines that day, believed
to be a record for 24 hours of fighting. Marine deaths were 195 and
545 wounded. Japanese losses were 3,472 killed and 91 prisoners.
Cooper participated in the invasion of Saipan, June 5, 1944. "When
we were going in, a 37 mm shell hit us and I lost my tractor. It
sunk and we swam ashore. I got hit and it came out the back of my
neck. Missed my jugular vein by a hair."
After swimming ashore, Cooper met another Athens Marine, Kenneth
Black. "He was in the infantry and we took him in for landing. We
stood up and shook hands and talked to one another. Right after that
is when he got hurt." (Black was bayonetted in the stomach on Tinian
a few weeks later and left for dead.)
On Tinian, Cooper earned his second Purple Heart. Cooper and fellow
Marines were crawling, under fire, toward a Japanese pillbox. "A boy
from Michigan was just behind me," Cooper says. "He hollered,
'DUCK!' When I didn't a bullet ricocheted off a piece of metal and
hit me." Cooper, now 74 and retired from MonSanto, pulls up his pant
leg and points to a nasty scar near his right knee.
The Marines took out the pillbox. Cooper was patched up and returned
"I was young and didn't care," he says. "I was wounded twice and
lost three Amtracs. It was just like your first football game.
You're nervous when you go in, when you first play, then you want to
get in there. You're ready to go!"
Early in the war, Cooper says the Marines were armed with .03
Springfield rifles that fired only five shots. "The Japanese would
laugh at us," he says. "They would let us shoot five rounds and run
out of ammo. Later, we got M1's that held eight rounds."
Cooper was on standby during the invasion of Guam, and was in rear
echelon during the invasion at Iwo Jima. After Okinawa, his next
action was to be Tokyo Bay. Then, the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima
August 6, 1945, and the Japanese surrendered August 15.
Cooper, a sergeant at the time of his discharge on December 24,
1945, was offered the rank of Warrant Officer if he re-enlisted for
an additional two years. "Give me a one-way ticket to Athens,
Alabama," Cooper responded.
Back home, Cooper's physician wouldn't let him go to work for three
months. He had too much shrapnel in his body.
Copyright 1998 Magnolia Press
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