A Good Marine And A Perfect Gentleman

carl and dottie

Carl and Dottie, 1942.

When Carl Cooper joined the Marine Corps on 24 August 1942, his brother Howard “Junior” Cooper was, quite literally, behind him – the two received sequential service numbers. The two were inseparable from the first. Carl kept his hulking, headstrong kid brother out of trouble, while Junior kept trouble away from his sober, taciturn elder brother.

The Coopers were assigned to a heavy machine gun platoon under the command of Lieutenant Alexander Santilli. “Saint” Santilli – he had hoped to enter the priesthood – was drawn to the quiet, serious Carl Cooper, who became his runner and sometime confidant.

While Carl was an exemplary Marine, he wanted nothing more than to go home to his beloved West Virginia where his girlfriend, Dorothy, was waiting. He must have written her countless letters, but only this one is known to survive–and, given its date, it must have been among the last she received from him.

Carl Cooper would die from head wounds on February 2, 1944, at the age of twenty five. He tore a hole in four hearts – his lieutenant, his brother, his sister, and his girlfriend. The war would claim “Saint” Santilli months later; a car accident took Junior’s life in 1947. Dottie and Doris were left with a few letters and mementoes, which they buried in their attics and deep within their hearts.

Thanks to Doris’ son – Carl Howard Caldwell – these letters have been brought back to light.

Dec. 8, 1943[1]

Dearest “Dottie,”

I’ll bet you think I never do anything but write you. I enjoy it though, that is the reason.

I went to a movie again tonight. They have some of the oldest pictures here. I wish they would start getting some that is at least interesting enough to sit through.

Are you still planning to move to your girl friends? Be sure & let me know in plenty of time.

Jr. went to Los Angeles yesterday & I’ll bet he sure is having the time of his life. He has to be back by six o’clock tomorrow morning.[2]

Before I went on maneuvers I picked out your Xmas present & when I came back they didn’t have it, but they told me they should have it in a few days & was I relieved. It seems that I always have the darndest luck when it comes to buying you a present. Yours is the only present I am planning on getting this year.

You know I am beginning to dislike California more every day. When I first got here it seemed nice, but since we have been here so long it has grown monotonous. I think the only place I will ever be satisfied in is our State. I wouldn’t trade it for any place I have ever been in.

Do you remember the song that Jr. liked so well when we were with you & Doris? It was “Woodchoppers Ball.” I heard it tonight. As old as it is he says he never heard it until we were in Chicago. The same orchestra was playing it & it made me think how happy I was when you & I were listening to it.[3]

Believe it or not I washed clothes today. We have such a poor laundry system that most of us does our own washing & pressing. Someday I hope to have you help me with this job.

How does your family like Tenn. by now? I hope they dislike it so much that they move back to Levi.

Sweetheart I’m getting sleepy now so I will close hoping to hear from you often. Be good.

Your love always,


carl and dottie collage

17 Feb 44[4]

Dear Mrs. Caldwell,

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.[5] I knew Carl very well, I was his platoon leader and we had been together for over a year. He was a good Marine and a perfect gentleman. Most of all he was a fighter, and that was the way he went.

Carl held a responsible job in my platoon.[6] He was quiet and very efficient. He was well liked by his fellow Marines and he learned very quickly. I took a liking to him from the very start. We had many long talks together, so you see I not only considered Carl as one of my men, but also as a close friend.

The death of your brother was a hard blow to us. He was the type of man that can’t be replaced very easily. It will be a very long time before any Marine can replace Carl, and live up to his standards. He will not be forgotten.

Carl was buried with full military honors on the island of Roi in the Marshalls, attended by a priest.[7]

Please accept my deepest sympathy, as I too shall bear the loss of your brother as one never to be forgotten. If at any time you are at doubt to any questions in your mind, please do not hesitate to write to me, and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Respectfully yours,
1st Lt. Alexander Santilli

Letter provided by Mr. Carl Caldwell.



[1] Written from Camp Pendleton, California, where the 24th Marines were undergoing their final weeks of stateside training. Just over a month from this date, Carl would be at sea bound for Roi-Namur.
[2] “Junior” is Carl’s younger brother, Howard Cooper Jr. The brothers enlisted together and were both assigned to Company D. According to veteran Glenn Buzzard, Carl was the more sedate of the two; Junior had a taste for mayhem and it was quickly found that he needed supervision while on liberty. In fact, on a later liberty, he returned late and was busted in rank down to private.
[3] “Woodchopper’s Ball” was a 1939 Woody Herman / Bill Chase composition. The Cooper brothers were avid music fans; Howard in particular was known for his jitterbug
[4] Written aboard the SS Robin Wentley, en route from Roi-Namur to Maui, Territory of Hawaii.
[5] This was quite possibly the first condolence letter Alex Santilli ever wrote. It would also be one of the only ones he ever wrote; Santilli was killed in action on Saipan less than five months later.
[6] Carl Cooper’s service record lists three different specialties: light machine gunner, messenger, and ammunition handler. From the close relationship Santilli mentions, it seems likely that Cooper was the lieutenant’s runner for a while.
[7] Carl was buried in Grave #21, Plot #2, Row #2 of the Pauline Point cemetery. He would remain there until 1948.

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