Today, the DPAA announced that Corporal Thomas Harley Cooper, of Chattanooga, Tennessee has been accounted for. Read their press release here.
Harley (as he was called) was born in Omaha, Nebraska on 2 November 1921. His family – parents Thomas Grady and Alline Patterson Cooper, plus older sister Katherine – moved quite a bit in Harley’s youth; first to Georgia (where younger sister Betty Sue was born) and then Tennessee (for the birth of Bobby Cooper in 1928). They lived in Detroit long enough to appear on the 1930 Census, but ultimately returned to Tennessee and settled in Chattanooga. The last Cooper child, Michael “Mickey” Cooper, was born there in 1932; three years later, Alline would die and be buried there.
Harley dropped out of school, almost certainly to help support his family, and went to work at the Richmond Hosiery Mill in Chattanooga. On 18 September 1940, he enlisted in the Marine Corps from Nashville and was sent to Parris Island for boot training. Private Cooper was detailed to the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida – instead of flight school, however, he worked as a specialist carpenter and painter, feet planted squarely on the ground.
In late 1941, around the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Cooper was transferred to Dunedin, Florida for training as an amphibian tractor crewman. He first learned the craft of a gunner, but showed some mechanical aptitude and in January 1942 was promoted to corporal and, possibly, reassigned as a driver. Corporal Cooper’s Company A would ship overseas in July of 1942 and be among the first “Alligator” Marines to see combat during the Guadalcanal landings the following month. Although not involved in sustained fighting – the company would instead be stationed at Espiritu Santo for the duration – the crews got ample practice in the use of their vehicles in the war zone. When the campaign ended, they traveled to New Zealand for training, rest, and recreation. Many Marines fell for the local “Kiwi” girls, and Cooper was no exception. He married his girlfriend in 1943, and had his emergency address changed to “Mrs. Ray C. W. Cooper, wife, 77 Harbor View Road, Wellington, New Zealand.”
The next operation would be far more dangerous for the Alligators. Cooper’s Company A would literally lead the charge against a tiny island called Betio, carrying assault Marines to shore from waiting transports while under fire. It was not really the role for which the bulky, slow LVTs were originally intended, and the price they paid was fearful. Most of the first wave vehicles were damaged or destroyed within the first hour of the landing. Cooper’s must have been one of them, for he was reported as killed in action on 20 November 1943.
Although Corporal Cooper was said to be buried on Betio, his remains were not found during the exhumation of cemeteries in 1946, and he was officially declared non-recoverable.
In 1980, a construction crew working on Betio contacted the US government, reporting the discovery of human remains that might be American. A delegation from the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii traveled to the Gilbert Islands and took possession of bones and pieces of material evidence. Attempts to identify the dead met with limited success, as the remains were weathered and aged. One set, designated as “CILHI 0002-80” could not be assigned an identity, and was buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in 1982.
These remains were exhumed once again by the DPAA in 2016 and sent back for another round of lab analysis. This time, thanks to advances in DNA technology, they were identified as Thomas Harley Cooper. He was officially accounted for on 9 August 2019.
Welcome home, Cpl. Cooper. Semper Fi.
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