'Tarawa' doc helps give closure

Pic significant for both filmmaker and WWII veteran

A life can sometimes be defined by its random events. For Steven C. Barber, a chance encounter with an 87-year-old World War II veteran led to the fulfillment of a 25-year dream he hadn't realized he was pursuing.

The ultimate result of that meeting, the documentary "Return to Tarawa: The Leon Cooper Story," will premiere Friday on the Military Channel. And while the film represents a major professional accomplishment for Barber, it also gives voice to Cooper's desire to distill meaning from the slaughter of a deadly battle he had somehow survived 65 years earlier.

Barber met Cooper at the Los Angeles Book Fair two years ago when they discovered they both knew actor Eddie Albert, who fought with Cooper at the three-day battle of Tarawa in the Pacific Theater in November 1943 and miraculously saved a few hundred lives.

Barber had met Albert while mountain biking in the Pacific Palisades more than a dozen years before, and as they became friends, Albert pulled out his collection of Life magazine photo spreads that documented the deaths of 1,113 marines on the island of Tarawa. It was, in fact, the first time that Americans back home saw pictures of their dead soldiers on the battlefield.

And what a battlefield. A mismanaged and misjudged amphibious landing resulted in American soldiers wading hundreds of yards to the shore in the face of 500 Japanese machine gun nests. Including the Japanese casualties, more than 5,000 soldiers died in the three-day assault before the Americans took the island.

Cooper, a Navy officer, went on to fight in six other battles around Japan.

"I said, 'How did you survive?' " Barber said. "He goes, 'Man, you're either lucky in battle or you're not. I was lucky.' " (Albert died in May 2005 at age 99.)

In the film, Barber documents Cooper's first trip back to Tarawa, part of the Gilbert Islands in the Republic of Kiribati, since he was 22. During that journey in March 2008, Cooper discovered that Red Beach was covered with trash, unexploded ordnance and the remains of Japanese and American soldiers.

Disgusted and determined, the now 89-year-old veteran decided to try to secure the cooperation of the local government as well as money from the U.S. to clean up the beaches, erect a proper memorial to his fallen comrades and bring home the 100 or so soldiers still listed as missing in action.

For Cooper and Barber, that battle is ongoing. But Barber's personal mission has reached a kind of resolution with the making of the film.

Born in 1961, Barber attended Augusta Military Academy before moving to Hollywood as an actor in 1984. He did stints on soaps "General Hospital" and "Santa Barbara" and read for the lead in "Top Gun," then spent years traveling the world on cruise ships as a DJ and cruise director.

Eventually, he started an advertising company called Sky Media and sold it for a healthy profit three years ago. Throughout, he kept coming back through L.A., pitching ideas and writing -- always the salesman.

At the time he met Cooper, he had been unsuccessfully shopping his novel "Below the Waterline" for a film adaptation. It's a semi-autobiographical comedy about a guy booted from multiple cruise ships.

"I'm the only person in the world who's been thrown off 17 cruise ships -- I hold the record," Barber said. Merv Griffin was apparently going to give him $100,000 to turn the book into a movie, but then he died. "I've been trying to get it to Judd Apatow," said Barber, ever the optimist.

But then Cooper came along, and with no agent, no manager and about $160,000, Barber put together "Tarawa" and sold it to Military Channel parent Discovery Communications. Through other random connections, he recruited Ed Harris to record the narration and Emmy winner Jay Miracle ("Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse") to edit the film.

Meanwhile, "ABC World News" and "CBS Evening News" have picked up Cooper's story. And an additional distribution deal with SnagFilms.com and Hulu should bring "Tarawa" to an even wider audience around Memorial Day.

"I'm an accidental filmmaker," Barber said. "I've been out here for 25 years and I haven't been able to really do anything."

"I feel like I've come full circle, like I've basically gone around the entire planet and I'm back to square one," he added. "I just feel complete. I was out busy pitching the Steve Barber story, and nobody gives a damn about Steve Barber. When I stepped outside of myself to help somebody else, that's when the magic happened."
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