VESTAVIA HILLS, Ala. (WBRC) - Colonel Carl Cooper is 99 years old and walks with a limp from an old war-related injury, but he still manages just fine.
“I can still drive,” said the Colonel as he climbed onto his riding lawn mower. “I still go out on my little farm and get on my tractor and do whatever work needs to be done. Bush hog or whatever.”
Back at his home in Vestavia Hills, Colonel Cooper maintains a garden complete with tomatoes, sweet potatoes, onions and green peppers.
He eats mostly vegetables but does treat himself every once in a while with “a banana sandwich or banana pudding.”
Raised on a farm in rural Chilton County, he grew up helping his family work the land.
“I played sports in high school. We won the State Championship in basketball three years,” he said with a remembering smile. “I was president of the senior class, fortunate enough to go to college on a football scholarship to the old Howard College (now Samford University) in 1940.”
The seventh of ten children, Colonel Cooper was the only one of his siblings to go to college. He was studying biology and on his way to medical school when his life and the world changed.
“The big bomb dropped, and World War II came along. I joined the Marine Corps April 1, 1942.”
He added, “I raised my right hand and said, ‘I do.’”
With those two words, Colonel Cooper pledged his lifetime in service to his country.
“I knew I was going to get some training and get some combat, that was the biggest thing, but I had no idea how it would turn out,” said Colonel Cooper. “But, the Good Lord had His way of handling things.”
From Birmingham, Ala., then Private Cooper was sent to basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina. After boot camp, he went to Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Virginia. He was sent west to California for more training and then a little further.
“We went and boarding a ship, went from there to Guadalcanal. And from Guadalcanal, we landed at Okinawa April 1, 1945. I was there in combat through the whole thing.”
For months, First Lieutenant Cooper was in the middle of some of the fiercest fighting of the Pacific Theater.
“I had command of, I think it was 12 amphibious tractors, and out of the 12, we lost nine of them in landing. So that shows the close combat that we was in, the shelling and what not.”
“But, made it through, I’m glad I knew how to swim.”
From the ocean to the beach and across the island, his unit helped secure Okinawa. After victory there, he was moved to Guam to prepare for the invasion of Japan but it wasn’t necessary. Two atomic bombs and the surrender of the Japanese meant Cooper and his fellow Marines were going home.
“I was just glad I could serve my country which turned out to be part of history, and I was very, very pleased when I had the opportunity to tell how much I loved my country.”
Back from World War II, Cooper continued his schooling, earning a doctorate. Instead of a future in medicine, he decided to pursue a career in education.
As he was working as a principal and football coach in Walker County, the United States entered the Korean War. Now a Captain, Cooper was called back to active duty, serving in administrative, artillery and infantry capacities.
“War is war, it makes no difference where it is and how tough it is. Depends a lot on your opponent and uh, unfortunately, they had no regard for life. Human life,” said Cooper, reflecting on the brutality of the war.
“You could eliminate a whole lot of them and they would show up with some more the next day or that night. They did a lot of their activity at nighttime so you never felt relaxed in 24 hours a day.”
A different kind of warfare and a different kind of homecoming, Cooper remembers. “[We] were not received with a great deal of enthusiasm and support. It was not a popular war and it showed on the troops. They never recognized the troops when they came back home.”
Cooper came home to his family and career in education. Mountain Brook was looking to start a school system and called on Cooper to help. He was hired as the first principal for Mountain Brook Junior High School.
He “loved” it, Cooper remembers, but when the Vietnam War started, he was called back to active duty. By now, Cooper had been promoted to a Colonel. This war was different, not because of Cooper’s rank, but because of his most important title, “father.”
“[My son] said, ‘Dad, I want to join the Marines,’” said Colonel Cooper.
He remembers urging his son to finish college but when Jimmy told his dad he “wanted to go now,” Colonel Cooper understood.
“I said, ‘OK, well, if you want to go, go for it. You go with my blessing.’ And so, he joined the Marine Corps and went to Vietnam.”
His son survived the war but died when he was just 26. His wife died years later and then his daughter. Colonel Cooper outlived his family, his siblings and most of the men he served with.
The National World War II Memorial estimates 249 World War II veterans are dying every day, and the VA predicts there are only 130 veterans like Cooper, who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, left living in Alabama.
“I hope I can do something to help somebody else before my time comes to depart. But I appreciate the people who recognized me for what I should do, was able to do, and was glad to do.”
And wasn’t ready to stop doing. When the Gulf War started, Colonel Cooper was retired and 70 years old.
“I called up headquarters of the Marine Corps and asked if I could come back to active duty, and they started laughing and said ‘Colonel, you’ve had your fun, let somebody else have theirs.’”
When asked what response he expected when he made the offer, Colonel Cooper laughed.
“Well you never know! But of course, there were a lot of things that I could have done. I could have helped with the training. I could have done a lot of things, I was still very young and active.”
Colonel Cooper gives a smirk then heads outside to finish his yard work.
“It’s been a good ride.”
Colonel Cooper is a relative of a WBRC FOX6 News employee.