Last weekend, filmmaker Brandon Brown and I set out to find six celebrities buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC. The venture took four hours and more than five miles of walking. To put that into perspective, we were hunting for six graves out of more than 400,000 people buried in the 26 square mile cemetery with roughly an 8 mile trail running through it. This week, I am highlighting these people who either served in the military or were married to military personnel.
Known for his constant tears that rolled down chubby cheeks, Jackie Cooper was one of the top child actors of the 1930s.
But life changed for Cooper when he joined the Navy during World War II.
“I had gone into the Navy as a youth, and I came out as a man,” Cooper wrote in his 1981 autobiography, “Please Don’t Shoot My Dog.”
Cooper served in the Navy during World War II; going into the service in 1943 and was discharged in 1946.
“I think the only time I really regretted being recognizable was during the war,” he wrote.“It was tough on celebrities then. The officers wanted to show everybody they didn’t play favorites, so they were twice as hard as us. The men wanted to show us they were as good as we were, so they would go out of their way to pick fights, to prove they were our equals or betters….And yet for the duration, I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.”
Cooper went to Notre Dame in 1943 to 1944 for military training, but left after a scandal of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. A teenager got drunk in a group he was with, but Cooper was found innocent, according to his autobiography.
Bandleader Claude Thornhill was overseas originally in a Navy band started by Artie Shaw. When the band broke up, Thornhill asked Vice-Admiral Calhoun if he could form another band that played a remote bases in the South Pacific. The band was called Thornhill’s Raiders. Cooper, who was a drummer outside of his acting career, had played with Thornhill previously in 1942, and he called Cooper asking to join the band, according to Cooper’s autobiography.
In 1944, Cooper was promoted to seaman third class and was performing at the Aiea Naval Hospital in Oahu. Starting in January 1945, the band performed for eight months over 28 islands across the Pacific via Navy Air Transport, according to his autobiography.
Singer Dennis Day was also in the band. Friction between Day and Thornhill caused Thornhill to leave and morale for the band went downhill.
“The war was just out there, and you could see what it did,” Cooper wrote. “You knew that the public was being fed pap (we saw the newspaper reports on Tarawa that 1,500 had been killed, and we had no trouble counting 5,500 graves), and you knew the war would last 10 years more, and you wondered if you were helping much by playing music. Yet, you also saw what happened to so many good guys—dead, dying, blinded, horribly mutilated…We (the band) often talked about it. Were we doing enough? Generally, we had to admit we weren’t.”
Cooper saw action once on Ulithi. The harbor had more than 5,550 ships of U.S. Navy carriers, gunboats and supply vessels and the Japanese Air Forces attacked. The Japanese had very little left to fight with, and one Kamikaze attempted to crash into a ship went right into the water, he wrote.
“Then one of the enemy crashed his plane into the fantail of the carrier USS Randolph; all the ammo aboard its aircraft blew up, and hundreds of sailors were killed,” Cooper wrote. “The day after, we went aboard what was left of the hangar deck of the Randolph and there were ankle-deep puddles of blood. From that moment on I recognized how artificial war movies are.”
Cooper was on the island New Caledonia when the war ended, and then went on a goodwill tour of New Zealand. Cooper was discharged in January 1946.
After returning from the war, Cooper returned to Hollywood but eventually turned to directing rather than acting.
He joined the Navy again as a Naval Reserve in 1961 and remained remaining in the reserves until 1982. His rejoining started with Naval Reserve recruitment advertisements until the Navy urged him to join. Cooper was a lieutenant commander and was promoted to captain in 1973. During his time in the Navy, Cooper made training films and promotions, but declined promoting the Vietnam War, because he disagreed. In 1970, Cooper became an honorary Naval Aviator, an honor also bestowed to actor Bob Hope.
Upon Cooper’s retirement in 1982, he was decorated with the Legion of Merit by Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. Other than James Stewart, no performer in his industry has achieved a higher uniformed rank in the US military, according to the U.S. Navy.
Cooper passed away in 2011 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.