Return To Tarawa

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Leon Cooper seeks to preserve the hallowed ground of one of World War II’s deadliest battlefields at Red Beach on Tarawa Island.

In American Heroes Channel’s world premiere of Return To Tarawa, World War II combat veteran Leon Cooper embarks on what he considers his final mission – to preserve the hallowed ground of one of World War II’s deadliest battlefields at Red Beach on Tarawa Island. This battle was the U.S. Navy’s first major amphibious assault and over 1,600 American servicemen fell at Tarawa, a fortified Japanese stronghold. Tarawa is a series of coral reef atolls in the Gilbert island group, about 2,500 miles southwest of the Hawaii islands and currently within the Republic of Kiribati. Return To Tarawa documents Cooper’s stirring trip back to confirm first-hand the reports of the desecration of Red Beach, which is littered with piles of garbage, rusting debris and possible lost gravesites of servicemen still listed as missing in action. While an emotionally charged experience for the eighty-nine year old Cooper, this journey further propels his mission to clean-up and restore this sacred battleground by making it a permanent war memorial for all those who fought and died there. Narrated by actor Ed Harris, Return To Tarawa: The Leon Cooper Story premieres Friday, April 24th, at 10PM ET on the American Heroes Channel.

Cooper’s first combat experience came in November of 1943 as a U.S. Navy landing craft officer charged with leading a group of Higgins Landing Crafts in the first wave of the Battle of Tarawa. The battle became known as “Bloody Tarawa” because over 1,600 marines and sailors lost their lives and more than 2,000 were wounded over the course of the three-day conflict. Cooper cannot escape the painful memories of seeing hundreds of his fellow countrymen fall around him and now, he lives with the gut-wrenching knowledge that the site of their ultimate sacrifice has become a garbage dump. Therefore, Cooper has dedicated himself to securing the support of the U.S. and Republic of Kiribati in restoring Red Beach to its original pristine condition. Return To Tarawa tracks Cooper’s efforts to have his comprehensive restoration plan implemented including building a modern incineration facility, which would relieve the island’s chronic issues of refuse disposal. Cooper is seeking the support of the U.S. government to fund this program and establish the beach as a permanent war memorial including moving the Memorial to the 2nd Division Marines from its current location in a parking lot.

During his journey, Cooper meets with non-profit organizations dedicated to searching for the hundreds of U.S. servicemen still listed as missing in action from the Battle of Tarawa. Nearly 65 years later, these volunteers are using declassified documents, archive photographs and ground-penetrating radar to identify and locate what was suppose to be temporary gravesites that still may exist on the island. These organizations hope their efforts will assist the U.S. government in returning the remains of these MIA’s to their families and provide these heroes a proper burial back home on U.S. soil.