CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Charles Labin Cooper Jr. was 18 years old in the year 1942 when he enlisted in the United States Navy. He was interviewed at the National Guard Training Center in Sea Girt, New Jersey, when he spoke about his time in the Navy during World War II.
The interviewer began by asking Cooper what he was doing before the war, and whether he, his family and friends talked about it. He told her that he worked in a sparkplug factory in downtown New York City, where he lived; and, that he and his friends and family talked about the war and thought it was terrible. Cooper described his vivid memory of the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. He was at a football game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants (Yes, that is correct) when the announcement was made over the speaker system. Cooper did not know where Pearl Harbor was, so he went home to learn more information on his radio. After the attack was when he decided to join the military service.
Cooper joined the Navy because he did not want to be drafted into the Army. After enlisting, he was sent to the US Navy Basic Training base in Newport, Rhode Island. Since Cooper had been in a drum corps, the regimentation was not difficult to manage. Half of the company was from Boston; the other half was from New York City, and everyone got along well. On his Navy aptitude test, he selected signaling first, boatswain’s mate second, and gunner’s mate third. Cooper was lucky enough to get his first pick. He attended school for 16 weeks at the Navy Signal Training School at Butler University, where he learned Navy signaling codes. After graduation, Cooper was assigned to the Armed Guard, a Navy unit that manned guns on civilian merchant vessels. He was sent for training on international signaling to a Navy installation in Noroton Heights, Connecticut, and then across the country to Treasure Island, California, and Hawaii.
The first ship Cooper served on was a cattle boat. It was an old merchant ship delivering food to the troops. He was a signalman on board, but there was not much signaling to be done; so, he hung out with the gun crew, who did not see any action either. Cooper also served on an army transport ship that travelled locally around the Hawaiian Islands. Each time he was transferred to a new ship, he worked with different signalmen. Nothing stood out as unusual in Hawaii, as things were peaceful; although, the bombed ships at Pearl Harbor were a devastating sight to see.
Cooper went on to speak about other ships he served on, most of which were merchant vessels which carried ammunition, supplies and troops to destinations in the Pacific Ocean. He described the guns that were installed on the ships he served on; and, how they were used to combat enemy aircraft. The guns brought down many planes, with some ships also sunk in the process, especially by Kamikazes at Saipan and Okinawa.
Cooper recalled seeing the Japanese through binoculars on Saipan, but he did not have any close encounters with them. He also saw Japanese bodies floating in the water. On one occasion, Cooper met British sailors who were impressed with how well kept and run the American ships were. He had socialized with civilians during his time in Hawaii in bars and other places; yet, once he was sailing around the Pacific, he only stopped at military bases.
Weather was never really an issue, save for one bad storm Cooper recalled when the ship he was on was totally engulfed by waves; but, fortunately, it stayed afloat. He never got seasick, and said that healthcare was excellent on the ships. Cooper recalled that people around him got treated for various conditions, and they returned to work in a day’s time. Morale of the crew was great, even before Midway, when the war had not been going well. On one occasion, morale was boosted by a United Services Organization (USO) show in Honolulu, with Claude Thornhill’s orchestra.
Cooper described the clothing and rations he was issued as adequate. Occasionally, there were circumstances when supplies ran low and had to be rationed. He remembered one occasion when he was given a bucket of water to bathe, shave and do laundry with for the whole day. Cooper did not receive much mail during his tenure; he remembered huge mail sacks filled with letters and packages for sailors that were dumped on the decks of ships.
When Cooper finally got his only leave during his service, he went home to New York to spend time with his family. He did not see any friends, since they were all in the service as well. Going back to war after this did not faze him, as Cooper thought we were winning. When the war did end, he was in the Philippines. Cooper remembered it being like the 4th of July, how sailors shot flares and ammunition into the air. He thought the use of the atomic bomb was a necessary thing, since it saved the lives of many American boys; and, even all the Japanese who would have died during a land invasion of Japan.
In 1980, Cooper traveled back to visit some of the locations he had served at during the conflict when he and his wife took a cruise to Hawaii. He showed her all the places he had been so many years before. Many of them looked dramatically different, as resorts and skyscrapers now stood in places where they had not in 1941. Cooper kept in touch with a few of his mates from boot camp and school; and, they got together every year to reminisce and talk about what was new in their lives. There have been organized veteran reunions, but it was difficult for him to attend them, since he was taking care of his ill wife. Cooper also belonged to several veterans’ groups, including the Armed Guard Association, the VFW and the American Legion.
War did not change Cooper. His background in sports, a drum corps and working before he entered the service had accustomed him to obeying orders. He was never depressed before, during, or after the war and was lucky to have made good friends and to see places he would have otherwise never seen.
Cooper felt that there was not enough emphasis in schools on teaching what happened during World War II. He thought that not enough attention was given to the experiences of the men and women, and what they accomplished during the war. Cooper said that if something similar happened again, he thought the same solidarity would happen, with people volunteering for the war effort and being gung-ho about it.
Cooper said that if he could go back into service he would; he had wanted to volunteer to teach signaling when the Korean War began. After the interviewer thanked him for his time, he showed her photos and certificates from his service in the navy. His certificate from the Ancient Order of the Deep is connected to a story that Cooper described as a “fun time.” Sailors who wanted to get initiated as Shellbacks, which practically was all of them, had to go through a painful and embarrassing initiation that they all thought was worth it to receive the Shellback card.
Cooper had saved a list of all the ships that were at Okinawa, a letter he received from the Secretary of the Navy, and his service school record that showed he finished at the top of his class, an achievement he was very proud of because he did better than some college graduates, when he himself was only a high school graduate. He said he did not wear his medals but did wear his ribbons on his hat, and had sometimes given them to his granddaughter to bring into her class at school.