“I realized that the remains of hundreds of U.S. Marines were buried under thousands of garbage filled trash bags,” recalls 93-year-old Leon Cooper. At that moment, Cooper, one of the last remaining survivors of the WWII Battle of Tarawa, redirected his life to rectifying this outrageous situation.
Steven C. Barber’s new documentary, Until They are Home, tells Cooper’s story and details the continuing search, 69 years later, for the remains of U.S. Marines killed in the Battle of Tarawa in the Pacific. Narrated by Kelsey Grammer and featuring an original song by country music star Clint Black, Until They are Home premiered at the Directors Guild in Hollywood on Memorial Day, 2012.
In what was known as “Bloody Tarawa”, the Marines suffered the worst loss of life in their 200-year history, losing 1,113 men in 72 hours from Nov. 20-23. It was a battle that for many years held legendary status, but has recently faded from the collective memory.
The historical footage in the film insures that if you see it, you won’t forget Tarawa. It creates one of those experiences from which you’d like to look away, but can’t. The documentary intertwines the history of the battle of Tarawa with the efforts of veterans like Cooper, descendants of the Marines killed there, and the U.S. military’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) to identify and return the remains of missing heroes.
After viewing the film, I asked Barber whether he had envisioned the intertwined structure for the film from the beginning or whether it came to him in the editing room. Barber said that as they were filming, it became obvious that this was the right approach and having high quality archival footage was critical. He praised his film archivist, Susan Strange, for putting together the stunning historical clips. “If she can’t find it,” he said, “it doesn’t exist.” And on the results of her work: “Jaw dropping”.