“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”.
Much of the new footage focuses on the efforts of JPAC to locate, identify, and return the remains of servicemen, not only from Tarawa, but from other conflicts as well. JPAC was established in 2003 and given the mission to recover the remains of the 83,000 Americans lost in foreign wars and still unaccounted for. To accomplish its mission, the team of soldiers, airmen, and marines employ the tactics of detectives, crime scene investigators, and archeologists.
JPAC has the largest forensic skeletal laboratory in the world and works with foreign governments to try to bring home the remains of the fallen. It deploys a dozen teams that travel the globe on recovery missions, identifying an average of six missing servicemen each month.
Veteran Leon Cooper passionately wants to see JPAC’s work continued, but, like many military programs, the future of the JPAC budget is in doubt. Cooper has created a non-profit organization to assist with this work. More information and ways to help can be found at www.returntotarawa.net.
Until They are Home is director Steven Barber’s second film with Cooper. Their relationship began when Barber began to record Cooper’s effort in the award-winning documentary Return to Tarawa: The Leon Cooper Story which can be viewed online. Barber’s other projects, from his Vanilla Fire production company, include Unbeaten, a chronicle of paraplegic struggle and triumph, and, premiering this fall, Carrier Classic which chronicles 48 hours at sea with the U.S. Carrier Carl Vinson.