WWII Vet Fighting One More Battle

At 88, Leon Cooper is fighting another battle of Tarawa.

"I walked along the beach and frankly I couldn't stop - I was crying," Cooper said.

The first battle of Tarawa was in 1943 -- one of the bloodiest of World War II: 1,001 Marines and sailors killed and 2,296 wounded; 4,600 Japanese died there. Leon Cooper's job was to ferry Marines to Red Beach in a landing craft.

"What will stay with me the rest of my life is watching guys being cut to pieces by gunfire. I could hear the bullets whizzing around me. I could see the mortars splashing in the water near me. You can't be careful in a battle. You're lucky or you're not," Cooper said. "I was lucky."

But now he's angry at what he saw when he returned to the South Pacific atoll last February for the first time since the war. What to Cooper was hallowed ground, to the citizens of Tarawa is just the local dump.

"This is an unsanitary desecration of hallowed ground," he said. "The remains of 200 Americans are still on the island."

So this old sailor geared up for battle one more time - on a mission to remove the tons of garbage from the beach and erect a proper memorial to those who died. He met with the president of the island nation of Kiribati.

"I'm determined to make this a success," Cooper said.

But he says this is a job for the U.S. government. He says the U.S. needs to pay respect to the fallen by paying for the clean up.

"It's a symbol of our country's neglect of guys who gave their lives for our country," Cooper said.

He contacted everybody - from the White House to the Pentagon to members of Congress.

And what happened?

"I got nothing except a few routine acknowledgments, one saying, 'we thank you for your interest in this subject'," he recalled.

Cooper says this might be his last hurrah, but he's determined that this battle of Tarawa will end like the first - with sailors and Marines victorious.

"I owe it to the guys that I saw being killed in defense of our country," he said. "It's as simple as that."