Local Marine, honored recently for WWII service, dies at 91

John Lee Cooper, 91, died Feb. 16 in his sleep at home, said W. Roger Smith, a nephew who lobbied for a year and a half to get his uncle the medal. In recent times, Cooper was ailing from cancer, Smith said.

“He was just a gentle person, he was a caring person,” Smith said Wednesday. “He loved sitting and watching his baseball.”

He also was known for giving advice to his grandchildren, Smith said.

“Jack was a very proud guy,” said Rickie Fields, 59, his stepson and a former Dayton Daily News employee who now lives in Stone Mountain, Ga. He described him as a “hard working” and a “devout man” strong in his religious faith “who believed in basic principles and lived them.”

Cooper was one of about 20,000 African-American recruits who trained to become Marines at Montford Point Camp adjacent to Camp Lejeune, N.C., from 1942 to 1949. Like the Tuskegee Airmen, they served in segregated units separate from their white counterparts. Cooper served in the Pacific during the war.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a directive in 1942 that opened the door for African-Americans to serve in the Marine Corps, but segregation in the U.S. military remained until President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order in 1948 to abolish the discriminatory practice.

Decades later, the Montford Point Marines were recognized with the Congressional Gold Medal for their service in World War II.

In a ceremony in December at the Hospice of Dayton, Cooper sat with a red, white and blue blanket on his lap and next to an illuminated Christmas tree while proclamations were read saluting his service. He was awarded a bronze replica of the Congressional Gold Medal, just as some 400 surviving Montford Point Marines and their surviving family members were in June 2012 in Washington, D.C.

“It means everything to me,” Cooper said in December. “I thought maybe they had forgotten about me.”

Smith said he worked through government bureaucracy with congressional assistance for months to get the medal for his uncle, a retired autoworker and an avid bowler.

“I think that’s one of the things that kept him going for a while,” said Smith, a Dayton native who lives in the Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook. “He was just thanking me and he was just so excited.”

Funeral services were set for 1:30 p.m. Friday at the Mt. Olive Baptist Church, 502 Pontiac in Dayton, according to the House of Wheat Funeral Home. Burial will follow at the Dayton National Cemetery.

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