“There was no way to get out of the line of fire,” Mr. Cooper said in “Return to Tarawa,” a documentary film about his battle experiences that was televised on the Military Channel in 2009. “Every goddamned angle was covered. We bumbled and stumbled into all this slaughter.”
The American forces took the island in 76 hours, but the toll was brutal: About 1,000 Marines died, and 2,296 were wounded. The New York Times wrote, “Riddled corpses form a ghastly fringe along the narrow white beaches where men of the Second Marine Division died for every foot of sand.”
Tarawa was the first of six Pacific battles, including Iwo Jima, that Mr. Cooper participated in. But it was the one that never left him.
Tarawa continued to anger him for years and caused nightmares; in one, he said, he dreamed he was falling deep underwater before encountering a young boy sitting on a submerged Sherman tank.
“You never really lose the memory of the sounds, the smells and everything, including the blood running down your nose so you’re smelling blood instead of breathing,” he told Armchair General magazine in 2009.
His return to Tarawa for the documentary in 2008 brought back a flood of memories as he walked the beach where he had carried Marines into ferocious Japanese crossfire.
“I smell the stench of those bodies rotting in the sun,” he said. “It still comes back to me.”
Leon Cooper was born on Oct. 23, 1919, in Chicago. His father, William Sr., owned gas stations and was later a bookkeeper. His mother, the former Rachel Rossman, was a homemaker who became a saleswoman at Lane Bryant after ulcers made her husband too ill to continue working. To help his once-prosperous family make ends meet, Leon became a caddy and his brother William Jr. a prizefighter.
Mr. Cooper enlisted in the wartime Navy after graduating from the University of Illinois with a degree in government, finance and accounting.
After the war, his family said, Mr. Cooper held federal and state government jobs, started a computer training school and was an executive at Teledyne and Litton Industries. He later helped invent a smoke detector tester and sold it for many years through his company, Home Safeguard Industries.