Thursday, January 13, 2011

Leroy Cooper...Drafted during Korean War


This is an excerpt from Leroy Cooper's memoir as told to me back in 2007. The material is copyrighted by Susan Cross and cannot be copied, published or duplicated without permission.

…Uncle Sam sent me a letter and I got drafted.

I went in the Army. They handed me a machine gun and said, “I’m going to send you down to the heathens. I’m going to send you down to F company where they don’t even give you commands, they give you whistles.” I said to myself, ‘Oh my goodness. I’ve got to audition for this band!’

They would have an all white outfit with a black leader. I went up to an all black band to audition and I tried to get out of playing the baritone. They said “What do you play?” I said ‘Alto.’ They said, “We only need a baritone.” I said, ‘Oh, oh, oh, I play the baritone.’ He said, “Okay, can you read?” I said ‘Yeah’ I saw music they had and it was something I had played every night so for my audition I took this song and said to this guy, ‘Kick it out for me.’ And he said, “Kick it out yourself.” And I kicked it off because I knew the song without the music and I played it and they were shocked.

He said “Okay, just mess around with the horn. I got to go to the office for minute.” I hadn’t played a horn in awhile because I’d been in training so I started messing around with the horn, blowing, and it felt good to me. I was just blowing away and the 55 piece band was sitting on the stage and they applauded. They said “Who was that?”

In Ernie Field’s band when I thought I was just keeping up I was a big deal to these guys. They knew who I was. I was only 21. They said, “We’re gonna get you in the band.”

Meanwhile I went down to my outfit, this machine gun company, and I was getting ready to go to Korea to fight. If you ever witnessed this, it was like a jail sentence. They said, “The following EM have been alerted for FECOM.” That was Greek to me. I said, ‘EM?’ They said, “Yeah, FECOM. Far East Command.” I said, ‘What does that mean, man?’ They said, “You’re going to Korea to fight.” I said ‘Oh Lord.’ They said, “Send all of your civilian clothes home. You won’t need them.” They gave you $10,000 insurance and they asked, “How do want your people to get the money? Ten thousand at once, or break it down?” I said, ‘Wait a minute. You can tell me nicer than that, man.’ I mean, they were sending us off to die. They said, “How do you want your people to be paid?” I said, “Just give it all to them at once, if something happens.” I went to mail my clothes home.

That’s not a good feeling. I was going to Korea, and in the machine gun company. They said, “The biggest man in the squad formation, the biggest man carries the ammo, the ammo bearer. One man carries the ammo, one carries the tripod.” I said, ‘I’m an ammo bearer, man. What do I fight with?’ They said, “You don’t need nothing. You just gonna carry the ammo. They knock you out first anyway.” Oh man, that’s not a good feeling.

Anyway, two days before I was shipping out, I’m in the barracks. Some guys were crying. It was sad, a depressing time. The CO who was the captain said, “Private Cooper?” I said to myself, ‘What have I done this time?’ So I said, ‘Sir, are you looking for me? Cooper?’

“Who is this damn band?” he asked. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, “Who are you?” I said ‘I’m Private Cooper.’ He said, “This band sent a direct order and drafted you away from us. You’re going to that band.” In other words, going to that band is more important than going to Korea to fight? And I said, ‘Pardon the expression, sir, but don’t bullshit me.’ He said, “No. They’re sending a jeep for you as we speak.” Then a jeep pulled up and said, “Are you Private Cooper? We’re looking for Private Cooper. Get your gear; you’re outta here.”

I threw my stuff in the jeep. My buddies waving and I would never see them again. We went up to where the band lived, and we slept on mattresses. And they had two sheets and they were complaining that the sheets weren’t ironed.

On the same post, Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, they had 20 or 40 square miles; four or five bands. It was a city out there. I got up to the band, and, oh boy, at the PX I saw women walking down the streets; I’d been in the jungle down there.

I used to work hard up there and then not in much time, about ten months, I was a Sergeant. I felt so impressive in the band and when the man gave me those stripes, I didn’t want it. I wanted to hang with those fellows. He said, “No, I’m giving you a direct order, I’m making you a Sergeant.”

They gave me an 18 piece band to be in charge of. I was booking one of my jobs. One of my duties was to book Friday night parties for the different outfits on the post. Where did they send me? To the 91st battalion where I came from! This time I had Sergeant stripes, got my own driver and Jeep and I go back down that hill and there was the same Sergeant that kicked me out and told me I would never be nothing, I walked in and said ‘Request command to see me.’

“Oh yes sir, go back in.” I went into the office. “Close the door, son.” He pulled his liquor out and said, “You drink son, don’t you?” We drank and we had this party and all these girls came from St. Louis and talked about the band and after we finished business we talked about anything; telling jokes and everything. Then he said, “Don’t I know you from somewhere?”

In the Army days they called me Boogie Red. I don’t know what that was about but that was my nickname. I said ‘You remember Boogie Red?’ He said, “You used to be down here?” ‘I told you all the time I was a musician,’ I said.

I keep thinking about those Army experiences and I think the angels are watching out for me.

3 comments:

John Wiswell said...

That sort of ra-ra grit is very interesting to me. I appreciate our culture being less enthusiastic about real life violence, yet find tales from The Iliad to 20th century wars about pride, battle glory an quixotic brotherhoods fascinating. Not that this is bloodthirsty fiction, but with the aggressive pushes of dialogue, it achieves that pre-pulp tone that I don't see much anymore.

Susan Cross said...

Hi John,
This was a direct transcript from Leroy Cooper for his memoir. This is how he told it to me while he gazed off into the past and seemed to be reliving the experience. During the Korean War, this was pretty much standard for black companies being sent to die in combat. Cooper dodged a bullet thanks to his musical background--1 day before he would have shipped out. The truth often says it better than fiction.

Jai Joshi said...

The insight into these moments of history are always fascinating, Susan. Leroy saw and experienced a heck of a lot.

Jai