Private First Class John Eugene Cooper, an Emporian whose death led to the founding of Veterans Day, was an unlikely hero.
“He had not been in some heroic action – he was just one of the casualties of the battle,” said Loren Pennington, ESU emeritus professor of history who runs the Veterans Roundtable each year.
Pennington said Cooper was a happy and easygoing guy. Because he looked like Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, Cooper was commonly known as “Bull” Cooper.
Cooper was born in Emporia in 1916, according Aaron Bura, a military order of the Purple Heart chaplain. When he was 2 years old, Cooper’s mother died, and he went to live with his grandmother and worked at the shoe repair shop of his uncle Alvin King.
In the 1930s, according to Bura, Cooper volunteered for Emporia’s National Guard Company B of the 137th Infantry, 35th Infantry Division, as the oldest member. He and the other 121 members of Company B were called to active duty on Dec. 23, 1940.
They took part in several maneuvers in central Tenn., and went to West Virginia for three weeks of mountain training. The training seemed to indicate that they were headed for the Italian front, but they were not.
By July 1944, they landed in France and were almost immediately involved in the hedgerow fighting, Normandy breakout and the advance across France, according to Bura. Soon after their landing, Cooper was wounded, and for this he received his first Purple Heart.
When Company B was near the German border, the German forces started to fight back, leading to the Battle of the Bulge. On Dec. 20, the 1st Battalion was repeatedly attacked, and Company B had two German S.S. companies infiltrate its positions. The attack was held off by one squad of Company B until a friendly tank was brought up and the combined fire of the infantry and tank drove the enemy from the position.
“During the fighting, Private Cooper (was in a foxhole),” Bura said. “A German artillery shell came over, struck a tree branch directly over Private Cooper’s head, exploded, and Private Cooper was killed by the shrapnel.”
But it was not until mid-March the next year that his family learned of his death, Bura said. His uncle, Alvin King, was particularly devastated by the news.
“Some people think Alvin King was a shoe repairman, so he was a humble citizen,” Pennington said. “No, he was more than that. He was kind of a leader in the community, and he did all kinds of things.”
King took a special interest in Company B and its reunions, and in the early 1950s he conceived the idea of changing Armistice Day, Nov. 11, which honored America’s veterans of World War I, to Veterans Day, to honor the veterans of all America’s wars.
On Nov. 11, 1953, while the rest of America observed Armistice Day, Emporia held the first Veterans Day.
In 1954, Congressman Reece of Emporia introduced a bill into the House of Representatives to change Armistice Day to Veterans Day. The bill passed the House and Senate and was signed by President Dwight Eisenhower. On Nov. 11, 1954, America observed its first national Veterans Day, and Emporia has since been recognized by Congress as the Founding City of Veterans Day in the United States.
King died in 1960.
At the roundtable in 2008, Cooper was posthumously awarded his second Purple Heart. The medal was given to Cooper’s surviving nephews.
“John Eugene Cooper was a single American serviceman,” said Vice Commander Edward L. Van Vickle during the presentation, “but let him stand for all American servicemen and servicewomen who have served the nation in America’s wars and who are honored each year on Veterans Day.”