Bristol – A significant and one of a kind World War II collection was recently donated to the Elkhart County Historical Museum detailing a gripping human interest story on Elkhart native Jack Cooper and his short lived life and military service. Surviving family members of Cooper, including his sister, Jeanne Finney, contacted the museum in 2014 to inquire about a potential donation to the museum. “We are so fortunate and honored to have been thought of and considered for such a rare collection,” said Liz Fisher, curator of collections, “this story and collection is Smithsonian worthy and probably would have been graciously welcomed at any national museum.”
The Jack Cooper World War II Collection consists of documents and artifacts that tell the story of how 23 year-old Cooper, Aviation Radioman/Gunner on a torpedo plane, joined the Navy and details his subsequent death. In June 1944, Cooper’s plane was shot down over the Pacific Ocean and he was adrift in a life raft for nearly a month before he died. What happened to Cooper while he was adrift is revealed in the diary he scratched on the leaves of his wallet using a safety pin. The diary reveals Cooper’s struggles, the death of his crew members, and the love for his family and fiancé he left behind for the Pacific Ocean theater of World War II. “The most heart wrenching detail of all,” explained Fisher, “is that when the raft was located, the military determined that he died adrift only four or five days prior.”
In addition to the wallet, the collection includes photographs, correspondence, national media reports at the time of his death, the Purple Heart he was awarded, publications and articles, military records, and research notes created by step-brother Robert Anderson as he worked to secure the Indiana Distinguished Service Medal honor for Cooper more than 50 years after the incident.
Cooper was born in Detroit, Michigan on August 25, 1921, the first child of 16 year old Blanche (Hammon) and Harry Henry Cooper. He was joined by four other siblings and the family eventually relocated to Elkhart, Indiana. During his youth in Elkhart, Cooper was employed by two Elkhart firms, American Coating Mills and Martin Clothing Stores. Before he graduated from Elkhart High School, in 1940, he volunteered to join the Navy and departed for the Pacific Theater in October 1942 never to return.
Liz Fisher and collections management volunteer, Wanda Hoffman have been working diligently over the last few months to document, catalog, and process the collection in order to make it accessible to the public through research, future exhibits, and outreach. Once completed, the collection inventory will be available on the museum’s website, elkhartcountyhistory.org, along with other collection guides.
“We have taken our time to properly prepare the collection to ensure this story is preserved in perpetuity for local, regional, and national generations to come,” said Fisher.