Alumnus Turns Historian to Uncover Little-Known Mission from World War II

November 20, 2013

Gary Cooper’s first long commitment of service to his nation was a 35-year career in the U.S. Navy, primarily as a submariner, retiring with the rank of commander. You might say his second extended commitment came through a research project in retirement, a project that will be published next year as the nonfiction book Fatal Error: The Final Flight of a WWII Seaplane Bomber.

Mr. Cooper, a 1954 alumnus of Saint Leo College Preparatory School, a predecessor institution of the university, shared his World War II story earlier this month at University Campus with fellow alumni. The event was also part of Saint Leo’s 40-year anniversary celebration of educating active duty military, veterans, and their families.

The audience was visibly impressed as the author recounted the story of how a longtime family friend, four years ago, turned over to him a suitcase they had found that had been discarded and set aside. The friends recognized the contents of the case held clues to part of a personal history of a World War II Navy officer, and thought the story and records probably warranted attention.

Inside, Cooper found some of the military records of an Ensign who served with Lieutenant DeLand Croze, a capable, handsome 25-year-old. One discovery lead to another, and Mr. Cooper was eventually compelled to research the life of each crew member. Eventually, he crafted a narrative relating the story of a crew and its dangerous assignment, undertaken almost at the end of the war.

As Mr. Cooper wrote, on June 4, 1945, Croze addressed his young men, most of whom had just finished combat training and were about to embark on their first actual mission together. They had been sent to the Philippine Islands, and were targeting an area under Japanese occupation. They were expected to bomb vessels carrying supplies to the Japanese, and were warned of Japanese gunboats protecting the supply vessels. Cutting off the supply lines would help weaken the enemy, so that was the mission. Croze told his men what he expected this way:

“Good morning men. The Seventh Fleet Air Command has ordered us to scour the east coast of Borneo, the Straits and west coast of the Celebes for enemy shipping. Except for local fishing boats, anything that moves in the water is fair game. Combat Information has advised that there is a Jap gunboat patrolling the south end of the Strait. So far it has not been seen but I plan to find it today. I expect each one of you to be vigilant and when we find that gunboat, I’ll need the help of every one of you to destroy it.”

The crew performed superbly, but eventually the plane sustained heavy damage and the crew had to prepare quickly for a water landing. A message was sent in Morse code asking for a rescue, but tragically, an error in the coding relayed inaccurate information on the plane’s landing location. That meant the Allied Armed Forces lost valuable time searching in the wrong areas for the downed plane with a crew that had little means of protecting its members.

That was the error that proved to be fatal for most of the crew—only three of the 14 young men involved survived, in spite of acts of selflessness and grit. The mission was ultimately fatal also for three men who were dispatched from a secret, elite team operating within the Australian forces with orders to find and rescue the still-missing members of American crew.

Although Mr. Cooper’s research obviously could not change the past, his work has brought to light personal narratives of men whose service deserve honor and recognition. That helped some members of surviving families, Mr. Cooper told the audience. One woman, who lived to an advanced age, was relieved finally to discover what had happened during the war to her much-loved younger brother. Mr. Cooper also discovered other memorabilia that is making its way to museums. Ultimately, Mr. Cooper’s work (four years of research and writing) broadens and deepens the public’s understanding of the war. His book will be published in 2014, and available through the online retailer Amazon. An Australian documentary will also be released next year telling the story from that nation’s point of view.