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 to combat.
"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.