Hometown hero: Local man reflects on military service
By Jennifer L. Williams
For the Enquirer
In January 1949, a farmboy from north Alabama gained some weight after being told he was too skinny to enlist and followed his brother into the Army.
Over the next 18 months, James Cooper completed basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina and relocated to Fort Lewis, Washington, to train as a tank crewman with the 2nd Infantry Division.
June 25, 1950, roughly 75,000 soldiers from the North Korean People’s Army crossed the 38th parallel in the first military action of the Cold War.
Cooper soon found himself halfway across the world, where he earned numerous awards and medals, including three Purple Heart medals and a Bronze Star with Valor, by the time he returned to the United States near the end of 1951.
“I joined the Army with plans to stay in indefinitely,” said Cooper, who now lives in Somerville and will turn 90 Dec. 6, “but I kept getting shot up, so I ended up getting out in 1952.”
One month after arriving in Korea, Cooper was injured when his tank was hit with an anti-tank round. He was badly burned all over his body and head. Though injured, he managed to pull one crewman from the burning tank and assisted in the rescue of two others. For his actions he received the Bronze Star with Valor and his first Purple Heart medal.
Not long after recovering from his injuries, in March 1951, Cooper returned to action and was hit by machine-gun fire while outside his tank. He received multiple gunshot wounds to one of his legs: seven rounds in total. He was sent to a medical unit in Japan to recover. For these injuries, he was awarded a second Purple Heart.
By late 1951, Cooper was back in Korea once again. This time, while out in the field, he suffered yet another injury from an explosion from an unidentified source. Cooper received a concussion from the blast – and his third Purple Heart Medal.
Staff Sgt. Cooper returned to the U.S. at the end of 1951. He remained in the Army stateside until the end of 1952.
“I had plans with a good buddy of mine from Florida to go back and fight again in Korea,” said Cooper, “but I went to Illinois for school, met a girl, and that was the end of that. My buddy did go back without me, and he got really messed up in the second half of the war.”
After getting married and settling down in Chicago, Cooper worked in general maintenance, having gone to school for everything from being a diesel mechanic to working in a machine shop. “I’ve done it all,” he said, “and could probably still do it if I could see better!”
He and his first wife had two daughters. He later met and married his current wife, Laurie, and they had three more daughters, along with a stepson and three foster children. The two will celebrate their 42nd wedding anniversary a few days after his birthday in December.
When Cooper retired from general maintenance work, he decided to move back home to be near family. Today, he and Laurie have dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The couple is very active in military organizations, including the VFW, DAV, AmVets, the Military Order of the Purple Heart Service Foundation and the Hartselle American Legion Post 52, to which they transferred when he returned to Alabama in 1992.
“I enjoyed being around other people who understood what I was talking about when I spoke of my time in the military,” he said. “We’ve enjoyed being a part of these groups and plan to remain for a while yet.”