Carl Edward Cooper was born on November 17, 1918, six days into the celebrations that marked the end of humanity’s final war.
As a small child, he was cared for by his parents and three older sisters; as he grew, he helped to keep four younger siblings in line. He lost his father in 1928, becoming the man of the house at ten years old. His sisters found suitors with named Caldwell, Lipari, Ferrell, and Carlisle; they settled in towns named Keith, Ameagle, and Rand. He became an uncle. Never physically imposing, Carl nevertheless loved to play football and, when the occasion called for it, he could even jitterbug. He finished high school, found a job fitting pipes for the duPont company, had a steady girlfriend, and kept an eye on his kid brother. He was a model citizen.
And then his war came.
Recruiting posters appeared in Charleston almost overnight; long lines of would-be fighters stretched out of office doors and down city blocks. Although of age, Carl was not among the first heady crop of volunteers to take the oath. There was his family to care for–his ageing mother, two young sisters, and rambunctious Howard Junior who, with the invincibility of a teenaged six-footer, was challenging the authority of peers, teachers, and the chief of police. The Germans and Japanese could wait: there was plenty to worry about in Rand, West Virginia.
Things changed when Carrie Scott Cooper, the family matriarch, breathed her last on July 19, 1942. Carl helped arrange the funeral, which took place at Sawmill Cemetery two days later. Of the four remaining unmarried children, only he had reached the age of majority. Joyce would stay with the Liparis in Ameagle. Annabelle would stay with the Carlisles in Rand. And Junior would stay with Carl.
Six days after Carrie’s death, the Cooper boys applied for enlistment in the United States Marine Corps. There were civic officials to consult about juvenile records, employers to consult about jobs if they returned, sisters to consult about receiving insurance payouts if they did not. Carl gave his legal permission for Junior, now seventeen, to serve. Completed forms in hand, the brothers joined the line outside the Charleston recruiting office on August 24. Carl was sworn in first; Junior was right behind him. They received sequential serial numbers and identical sets of orders. Later that day, they were on their way to Yemassee.
They would not be separated, the Coopers. Same train to Parris Island. Same recruit platoon. Same screaming DI. Same group of wide-eyed fellow boots to befriend or bedevil. Carl kept Junior out of trouble; Junior kept trouble away from Carl. After graduation, they again received identical orders. They would travel to New River, North Carolina. Their home would be Company D, First Separate Battalion (Reinforced). They would be machine gunners.
A year of training, in North Carolina and in California. Their roles within the platoon were clearly established. Carl proved to be “a good Marine and a perfect gentleman” – responsible, quiet, likeable, a fighter. His lieutenant, Alex “Saint” Santilli, counted Carl among his most efficient men, and among his close confidants. And when Junior ran wild on liberty, it was a squad of buddies led by Carl that got him home in one piece and out of serious trouble. Though he knew how to fire his squad’s heavy machine gun, Carl was more comfortable carrying ammunition or messages; Junior’s broad shoulders were better suited to carrying the massive weapon on forced marches and field maneuvers. That summer, Carl sewed on the stripe of a private first class; Junior’s promotion followed in a few months. Life became routine, even monotonous. Train. Hike. Fire. Clean. Liberty. Repeat.
On December 8, 1943, Private First Class Carl Cooper sat down to write a letter.
Dear Dottie… I’ll bet you think I never do anything but write you. I enjoy it, though, that is the reason.
He ran down the list of pleasantries and news, as he must have done dozens of times before. The theater at Camp Pendleton was showing the same old films. Junior, in search of more excitement, was tearing up Los Angeles on liberty. He had been out on maneuvers, though he didn’t say where; instead, he joked about his bad luck in finding her a Christmas present. He was homesick, bored of California, wouldn’t trade West Virginia for any place I have ever been in. Someone was playing a Woody Herman tune that reminded him of a visit to Chicago with Dottie, sister Doris, and brother Junior. It made me think how happy I was when you and I were listening to it. He joked about having to wash his own clothes. Someday I hope to have you help me with this job.
But he was an intelligent man, and though a PFC was not supposed to know the details of divisional plans, he knew they would have to travel much farther afield before he could go home. The news of the bloodbath at Tarawa dominated the headlines; some men he’d trained with in North Carolina had fought there; some, perhaps, were among the dead. He could not turn to follow his heart’s desire, so he signed off with a simple plea, Be good, and a simple promise, Your love always.
Carl Cooper and Dottie Avery in Charleston, circa late 1942.
January came, and with it yet another increase in the nervous tension. His platoon decamped from Pendleton for the docks of San Diego, where they boarded a transport and went to sea–only to come back in a few days later. It had been another drill, but it had the feeling of a final dress rehearsal: the curtain would be rising soon, though still they did not know exactly when. Junior, sensing an opportunity that perhaps would never come again, overstayed his liberty by twenty-four hours. The decision, it turned out, was perilously close to desertion–within the week, they were sailing across the Pacific. It still didn’t seem real, until the officers revealed the name of their destination, and then there was no turning back.
Carl Cooper spent his waking moments standing in line for chow, performing calisthenics on deck, belting ammunition, hearing lectures, reviewing objectives, memorizing schedules, and trying to make the time go by. Some of the gunners were issued brand-new carbines and took turns firing the light weapons over the side. For most of the time, the view was the same–ships, sea, and sky–though for a few hours one day they peered over the rail at the wreckage of Pearl Harbor, still smoke-blackened after two years, and ostensibly the reason why they were there. Nobody was allowed to go ashore.
They didn’t touch the ground again until they landed, under fire, on the island of Namur.
This envelope once contained a letter no family wanted to receive.
Dear Mrs. Caldwell, began the letter from Lieutenant Santilli. I write this letter, not as a soldier, but as a person who feels deeply moved by the death of your brother, Carl E. Cooper.
None left alive today were witness to Carl’s final moments on Earth. The muster rolls recorded 2 February: died of head wounds, character excellent. “Saint” Santilli spared the details, saying he was a fighter, and that was the way he went. A story sprang up that Carl and Junior were side by side when hit; certainly Junior, who was himself wounded, could not have been far away. On February 4, he might have joined the survivors of his company in touring the newly-established Pauline Point cemetery, looking for familiar names: Navara. Parkison. Ramputi. Cooper.
Carl’s death changed Junior from a headstrong teenager into a focused Marine. I find it awfully lonesome without Carl, he wrote. I am getting along fairly good now but I know I’m going to miss him more as time goes on. He received commendations for excellent service in the Marianas, where he helped thirteen wounded men reach the safety of friendly lines. And he found fierce satisfaction in the punishment he meted out on the Japanese. We’ve got dead Japs piled high, so I feel pretty proud. He ended the war in command of a machine gun squad and, discharge papers in hand, returned to West Virginia alone.
In June of 1947, Marine Corps headquarters in Washington mailed a form to Howard Cooper, Jr., of Rand, West Virginia. Receiving no reply, they contacted Mrs. Doris Caldwell. What, they wondered, would the family wish done with the remains of her brother, PFC Carl E. Cooper? Return them to us, said Doris. Howard had not written back, she explained, because he too was dead. An automobile accident took his life in May.
The following year, the Cooper brothers were reunited for the last time, among their kin in Sawmill Cemetery. Their pictures and records and memory were tucked safely away in the drawers and hearts of their family; they were not forgotten, but neither were they discussed. And gradually, their comrades, friends, and family passed away. Only their pictures and their letters remained.
I received the picture today. I think I like it better than any of the others. But he has an expression in his eyes that is heart breaking…. Looking at Carl’s picture, I can’t help but think that if I wrote to him, I’d get an answer. I shouldn’t write like this, I know. It probably doesn’t make you feel any better…. Thank you very much for the picture. It means a lot to me.
– Dorothy Avery to Sarita Caldwell, 1944
Thanks to Carl Howard Caldwell – their nephew and namesake, Doris Caldwell’s son – these pictures and letters have brought new life to the story of the Cooper brothers.
For years as a youth, my family would go to the Saw Mill Cemetery at Winifred, WV, every Memorial Day to clear the graves of Carl and Howard, who are buried in a Cooper family area containing also the graves of their mother, father, and, later, sisters…. The clearing of the graves was always something of a somber occasion for my mother who lost her mother, her two brothers and one sister within the span of about 5 years, from 1942 to 1947. I would look at my uncles’ grave markers and wonder about their experience in the war. As a child I wondered what they might have been like as uncles had they lived.
I still try to go to the cemetery every other year or so just to make sure that the grave markers are still upright and not being destroyed by the roots of a nearby towering sycamore tree.
Unless otherwise cited, all photographs on this page are courtesy of Carl Caldwell.