The relentless, sweltering and oppressive heat rains down on 94-year-old WWII veteran and the production team of vanilla fire productions at the Manila Hotel on this 70th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 2014. Temperature 101 degrees. Humidity 99 percent!
The last WWII veteran in the fight is on his final mission to shed light on the 88,000 MIAs from WWII that never made it home. Leon Cooper is an anomaly in every way imaginable. Ninety-four years old with a 140 IQ and undiminished capacity on every level.
He has boot strapped one feature documentary for over $200,000, Return to Tarawa,which was the highest rated documentary in history on the Discoveries Military Channel. Leon has also been involved with the Oscar short-listed film, Until They Are Home, and can be seen in 41 countries on Netflix Until They Are Home, Return To Tarawa, and Return to the Philippines.
Mr.Cooper is not only a patriot of the highest order, he is a one-man wrecking crew to right this egregious wrong from 70 years ago — the absolute and total disregard of the repatriation of over 88,000 war dead from WWII.
This new film, Return to the Philippines, The Leon Cooper story is yet another feature documentary chronicling the efforts of Leon Cooper as he risks his health and life to cast a bright light on this subject of Americas MIAs and the real story of the battle of the Philippines.
This is day four of principle photography, and has circumstance would have it, June 6, the 70th anniversary of D-Day. The Pacific, known to many as MacArthur’s War, is 10,000 miles from the beaches of Normandy, but certainly can not be overlooked as far as its enormity and importance to the preservation of western society.
On this day, we were able to set up a meeting with press liaison Kurt Hoyer to give us a tour of the American Embassy in Manila. A treasure trove history going back to president Taft, who was the first military Governor of this historical landmark, to the military tribunal of General Yamashita, who was hanged for war crimes. The irony of our time at the embassy is that ambassador Goldberg would not take the time to meet with or acknowledge Mr. Cooper.
This was indeed a bitter pill that Leon did not want to swallow.
We had spent months trying to get a meeting with Ambassador Goldberg. He would not return our calls or acknowledge Mr. Cooper’s existence. The same thing but even more egregious was that Leon has been trying to get meetings with both Senators Boxer and Feinstien for over 10 years!! They will not only meet with Leon, they will not even pick up the phone and call him. All three are a disgrace to there positions and it’s unfathomable that these “three stooges” are allowed to serve. When you cannot take to time to meet with a WWII veteran as a standing U.S. Senator or U.S. Ambassador, you are not fit for office.
Be that as it may, I was able to get into the embassy on a tour coordinated by press attaché Kurt Hoyer, who is a very kind and decent man.
The embassy is an unbelievable historic building. We were able to film as we went along and it was indeed enjoyable even though the Ambassador Goldberg hid in his office! It will always be quite unbelievable that the ambassador would not come out to shake the hand of a 94-year-old WWII veteran.
The next day proved to be quite emotional as we took the two-hour drive to Bataan. Over 25,000 Filipinos along with 9,000 Americans were killed during this unthinkable brutality of the Japanese Imperial Army. It’s difficult to understand how anyone survived this insanity. The two monuments for the Americans and the Filipinos were indeed impressive and very emotional.
Mr. Cooper broke down mentally and spiritually upon being confronted with the thousands of his fellow countryman engraved on the Bataan Memorial.
The next day proved to be equally dramatic as we headed down the actual Bataan highway where 70 years before man’s inhumanity to man was on a scale never seen before.
As we made are way to Mount Summit, a Statue of Liberty-sized white granite cross awaited us as it has awaited millions of others since 1970 when it was erected to commemorate the memory of the thousands who died on the Bataan Death March.
Mr. Cooper made his way to the top with a great deal of fanfare where he was mobbed by the local school children that were on site on an apparent field trip. To meet an actual WWII veteran was quite a memorable experience for these young Filipinos. It might has well have been General MacArthur himself!
After 20 minutes at the top of this amazing structure, we headed to the Bataan Museum where Leon was greeted with a heroes welcome and a personal tour of the museum, filled with arms and historical pictures of WWII and the Bataan Death March. The images graphic, the event surreal, and the memories vivid for this ancient warrior.
At his age, most would have dropped, but not Mr. Cooper. He was determined to do something worthwhile and significant every day, and that was the way it would go on all 14 days on the ground in Manila.
On our next great adventure, we took the one-hour ferry ride to Corregidor, where history once again was in our face in a big way.
General MacArthur had been on Corregidor for several years along with 20,000 plus Army personnel. A tunnel and cave system were in place and this is where the nickname “dug” out came from. Unconfirmed rumors are that the nickname may also been when MacArthur was in the West Point baseball team and was in the dugout most of the time.
Steve and Marcia Kwiecinski greeted us at the dock and we jumped into a nine-person bus for a personal tour like none other. The Kwiecinskis’ live in Corregidor year-round and have a vested interest in the island. Steve’s father was an artillery gunner during the war and there is a plaque dedicated to him at the exact gun he fired. The American barracks still intact 70 years later, but were bombed heavily. They are a ghostly reminder of a fierce battle long ago. We spent seven hours on “the rock” and thanked the Kwiecinskis for there kindness, and made our way back to the Manila Hotel.
The MacArthur suite at the Manila Hotel is as legendary as it is expensive. The hotel was bombed extensively, and the suite has been duplicated on the same floor as the original. Many of MacArthur’s medals, paintings and other memorabilia adorn the walls. The uniqueness of this $4,000 a night suite is a one of a kind and a must while in Manila.
Leon had befriended an Australian gentleman and his wife one evening in the lobby, and the next day they surprised him with dinner and drinks in the MacArthur suite. To be able to bring a WWII veteran who landed with MacArthur’s troops 69 years earlier will be one of my greatest honors in this life time. It was truly magical evening complete with a five-course meal and karaoke.
The next two days were interviews with the publisher of the Manila bulletin, Mr. Yap, and then former ambassador to Spain, Mr Rhoca — both would be informative and quite worthwhile. Emil Yap is the grandson of the recent billionaire Emilio Yap. He was young, sharp and could not have been kinder to Mr. Cooper, and even had a reporter write a story on Mr. Cooper on our last day there.
Our last day would be visiting the biggest U.S. cemetery in the Pacific — The American Cemetery. We had set up a meeting with former U.S. Marine who is the general manager of the cemetery. He and Leon spoke for two hours on myriad of topics from the 7,000 MIAs still unaccounted for, to the 22.5 million living in slums in Manila.
We then spent two the hottest and most humid hours of my life taking Leon around the cemetery and getting some amazing shots and narration for the documentary. I am not sure how Leon did this? It was quite remarkable. He did it with the fervor and passion of a man half his age.
Our final ride on the way back to the Manila Hotel was a drive through a local slum and it is indeed heartbreaking to see such poverty on a massive scale. Leon could not believe what he was seeing, and with a heavy heart went back to our five-star hotel with massive security. Manila still has many struggles a head of her.
We boarded Philippines Airways Boeing 777 bound for the 14-hour flight to Los Angeles. To say Leon Cooper is a patriot is an understatement. At 94 years of age, I don’t know another human on the earth at his age that would have the passion, the desire and the intestinal fortitude to do 20 hour days filming a documentary in these severe conditions. The film we have shot is the best so far form Vanilla Fire Productions.
I applaud you, Leon Cooper. You are a great American and the last WWII veteran in the fight!! Our new film, Return to the Philippines is intended for premiere and distribution on Memorial 2015.