By Ingrid Schnader
Vestavia Hills resident and retired U.S. Marine Corps Col. Carl Cooper has so many medals on his uniform that he said he can’t remember what they all mean.
In his 38-year career in the military, he served active duty during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. He said the medal at the top of his uniform is the Legion of Merit, and his nephew reminded him that he also has medals for Pacific engagement and strength in combat, and a presidential citation for heroism along with other metals.
Born in March 1920, Cooper grew up with his five sisters and four brothers on a farm in Clanton. He moved to the Birmingham area to play football at Samford University – then called Howard College – and there met his wife, James Anna.
“My major was in biology, but then World War II came along, and that ended football,” he said. “So, I swore into the Marine Corps on April 1, 1942. I wasn’t drafted; I just enlisted.”
He said he wanted to enlist because everyone else was enlisting or getting drafted to serve in the war. The war was just getting started.
“And I just owed that to my country for every little part I could do,” he said.
He went to training in California to get ready to go to war in the Pacific. First he went to Guadalcanal, and while he was there, his wife gave birth to their first son, in January 1945.
“He was a year old when I got to see him for the first time,” Cooper said. “You just hope you can live through it and get back to see him. And I did, I made it.”
He left Guadalcanal for Okinawa on April 1, 1945. Okinawa was the site of the greatest casualties in the Pacific during World War II.
When they landed, some of the amphibious, tractor-like vehicles hit underwater bombs. Cooper said he was close enough to shore to swim there, and most of his troops made it.
“On the northern part of the island, we were securing it, and I was the only outfit that went up to secure the remaining holdout,” he said. “So, we got in some of the caves and we eliminated a few Japanese along the line.”
On the Fourth of July, Cooper left Okinawa aboard a ship headed for Guam.
“At Guam, we were getting ready to invade Japan. And of course, the big bomb was dropped, and that changed everybody’s plans,” he said.
After his tour of duty, he returned home to his wife and met his 1-year-old son. He and his wife later had a daughter, and Cooper said he was able to be present for her birth.
Cooper spent some time as a teacher and coach in Marion before serving in the Korean War. When he returned from that war, he became Mountain Brook Junior High School’s first principal.
“Mountain Brook called me in, and I was the first principal they hired when they created the new school system,” he said. “I enjoyed it. I’ll tell you what, you have a good faculty and it makes the job a whole lot easier.”
Cooper’s fellow staff members told him he was pretty strict in his role.
“And I was strict on the discipline,” he said. “But still, we had a good school. And still today, sometimes I’ll run across one of them, and they’ll make some comment about, ‘You were hard on us. You were strict.’”
He served as principal there for eight years until he was called to serve in the Vietnam War.
On April 1, 1980 – the same day of the year on which he had been sworn into the Marine Corps 38 years before – Cooper retired at 60 years old.
“You feel lonesome,” he said about retiring. “You miss it. But I knew it was going to come. This happens to us all.”
Even though Cooper was finished serving his country in the Marine Corps, he found a new way to serve by working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He traveled all over the country in his new role.
“I enjoyed it,” he said. “It wasn’t a military operation, so to speak, but it employed all of the principles of setting up an operation like you were getting ready to attack the enemy. And we were getting ready to attack the enemy – by helping out to restore what the hurricanes and the weather had done to our country.”
He made an impression in South Carolina after Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989. They needed Cooper to help find a place to set up 300 offices as close to the disaster as possible. Within three or four days, Cooper had converted every room at a former Holiday Inn and outfitted it as an office, right down to the paperclips.
“Well, when they give you a credit card and say there’s no limit, you go for it,” Cooper said, laughing.
He spent 30 years working for FEMA, refusing to quit until he hit 90 years old. He said he enjoyed serving his country in that capacity.
During the Gulf War, he even tried to get on Operation Desert Storm.
“I called and said, ‘I’d like to come back on active duty if it’s possible,’” he remembered. “They started laughing. They said, ‘Colonel, you’ve had your fun. Let some of these other younger folks have theirs.’
“I was in my mid-‘70s or ‘80s. Of course I didn’t think they would do it, but I said, ‘I’m going to give it a chance,’” he said.
A Long and Healthy Life
In March, Cooper will celebrate his 100th birthday. When asked if he would change anything from the last 100 years, he said no.
“I made it through the first time, so no,” he said.
He said the secret to a long, healthy life is to live good and clean.
“I’ve tried to eat the right foods,” he said. “I still use a lot of vegetables, peaches, plums, grapes. I like good green stuff. I just keep a good balanced diet. I don’t drink and I don’t smoke, so that doesn’t hurt.”
Nine out of every 10 people he served with in the military smoked cigarettes, he said. But not him.
“And a lot of people did a lot of drinking,” he said. “I’m not going to say I didn’t take a drink, but I didn’t drink and wouldn’t be classified as a drinker. I think that’s what has kept my system going.”
Cooper has outlived his wife and two children. He has four grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.
He lives alone now in the house he and his wife bought in Vestavia in 1976, but he stays busy gardening, going to church and eating tomatoes by the handful.