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Remains of TN Marine who died in World War II now headed for Arlington

Arlington National Cemetery (Wikimedia Commons)
February 10, 2020

The body of U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Thomas H. Cooper, 22, of Chattanooga has been identified after remaining among 94 unidentified soldiers killed in the battle of Tarawa during World War II.

He was accounted for on Aug. 9, 2019, by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency after being disinterred from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known as the Punchbowl, in Honolulu, Hawaii, according to a statement released Thursday by the accounting agency.

Cooper was born Nov. 2, 1921, in Omaha, Nebraska, lived on 43rd Street in Chattanooga as a young man and enlisted in Nashville on Sept. 18, 1940, according to information and documents related to Cooper listed on the East Tennessee Veterans Memorial Association website.

Cooper will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, agency officials said. A date for services has not been set.

In November 1943, Cooper was a member of Company A, 2nd Amphibious Tractor Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, Fleet Marine Force, which landed against stiff Japanese resistance on the small island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll of the Gilbert Islands, in an attempt to secure the island, agency officials said in Thursday’s statement. Over several days of intense fighting at Tarawa, approximately 1,000 marines and sailors were killed and more than 2,000 were wounded, while the Japanese were virtually annihilated.

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Despite the heavy casualties suffered by U.S. forces, military success in the battle of Tarawa was a huge victory for the U.S. military because the Gilbert Islands provided the U.S. Pacific Fleet a platform from which to launch assaults on the Marshall and Caroline Islands to advance their Central Pacific Campaign against Japan, agency officials said in the statement.

In the immediate aftermath of the fighting on Tarawa, officials said, U.S. service members who died in the battle were buried in a number of battlefield cemeteries on the island.

The 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company conducted remains recovery operations on Betio between 1946 and 1947, but Cooper’s remains were not identified then, officials said. All of the remains found on Tarawa were sent to the Schofield Barracks Central Identification Laboratory in Honolulu for identification in 1947.

A construction project would lend some aid, but not enough.

In March 1980, the Central Identification Laboratory, a predecessor to the accounting agency, sent officials to Betio Island to receive skeletal remains that had been recovered during a construction project, officials said. Of the three sets recovered, two were identified.

The third was declared unidentifiable and was subsequently buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.

That declaration would change four decades later.

In 2016, the accounting agency disinterred the remains of 94 Tarawa Unknowns from the cemetery in Honolulu for identification. The remains were consolidated and sent to the laboratory for analysis, officials said.

To identify Cooper’s remains, scientists from the accounting agency used dental and anthropological analysis. Additionally, scientists from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome DNA analysis, officials said.

Cooper’s name is recorded on the Courts of the Missing at the Punchbowl along with the others missing from World War II. A rosette will be placed next to his name to indicate he has been accounted for, officials said.

Accounting agency officials expressed their thanks to the Department of Veterans Affairs for their partnership in the recovery.

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© 2020 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press