A good friend and mentor passed away last Saturday. My friend, “Top” Cooper, was an old World War II Marine. I miss him greatly. The end of The Marine’s Hymn says, “If the Army and the Navy ever look on Heaven’s gleams, they will find the streets are guarded by United States Marines.” Top Cooper reported for duty in Heaven the morning of April 4th, 2015, the day before Easter.
We who loved him await his funeral, but in the meantime, I visited a special place dedicated to Top Cooper called Cooper’s Landing in Palmdale, CA. My fiancee took this picture of me there.
In memorial for his passing, I’m posting this article I wrote three years ago, about Cooper’s Landing and how it helped a few good kids change their lives for the better. This article was first published in The EGA, the newsletter of Marine Corps League Detachment #930.
by Sgt. Christopher Chinchilla
Over 75 people showed for the graduation ceremony of 11 new Young Marines on Saturday, October 6th, 2012. After six grueling weekends of training, these youths have earned the title “Young Marine.” They did not train at Parris Island or San Diego, but their journey did begin in a familiar place: on a few good pairs of yellow footprints.
As the crowd of parents, siblings, and friends of the recruits turned their attention to these footprints during the ceremony, AV Young Marines Training Officer and Marine Corps League member, Mr. Danny Chinchilla, explained, “Any Marine, at some point in the beginning of their career, landed on footprints like these. They mean a lot—not at the moment that you’re there, but one day when you go back.” Author Jack Shipman, in his book, Yellow Footprints: 1969 Marine Corps Boot Camp, recalls the experience this way:
“The young men, bumping into each other, jumped off that bus so fast they appeared to fly out of the windows. They ran hard to line up on the yellow footprints, which were painted on the asphalt at forty-five-degree angles, facing the open barracks doors. There were forty-eight young men in all, evenly spaced, due to the pre-spaced yellow footprints…. With hearts pounding and beads of sweat forming across their foreheads, these Marine Corps recruits had just exercised compliance to their first order in the Marine Corps.”
For many of us, this is a memory we won’t forget. And the boys and girls of Young Marine Recruit Platoon 1201 have now had a taste of that experience.
So how did this small unit of Young Marines come to have its own landing of yellow footprints? Chinchilla says, “During a staff meeting, we were having a discussion about how great it would be to begin our new recruits on them, and to give them a feeling of what it’s really like.” He continues, “And Master Sergeant Al Cooper thought, ‘That’s a great idea’…and off he went.”
Retired Marine Master Sergeant Alvin Cooper joined the Marine Corps in 1943, before the Corps even had its now-famous yellow footprints, which were first used at Parris Island in 1964*. Sitting in that Young Marine staff meeting 69 years after he joined the Corps, MSgt. Cooper decided to take an idea and make it a reality. On his own initiative, without the knowledge of the staff, “Top” made his plywood cut-outs of the famous footprints—measured exactly at a 45̊ angle—and proceeded one afternoon, by himself, to paint them in yellow on the deck of the far back grinder of the Palmdale VFW Post. “And then one Saturday when we were all meeting,” Chinchilla continues, “Top came by and he said, ‘Danny, come here.’ He walked me back there and, lo and behold…,” there stood 20 pairs of yellow footprints, covered and aligned in five rows of four columns, facing East toward the building.
Chinchilla says, “For the staff, we all agree: it made the beginning of Young Marine Boot Camp. When the recruits came over here in that van and they got out, boom—that’s where they landed.”
Seven of the 11 youths of Platoon 1201 were the first to “land” on these footprints at the start of their training on August 10, 2012. At their graduation on Oct. 6, 2012, MSgt. Cooper was asked to stand before guests, Young Marines, and fellow Marine Corps League members for a special dedication. Indicating the youths standing tall at graduation, Mr. Chinchilla said to MSgt. Cooper, “These are the first recruits to stand on these footprints. From here on, every recruit that comes through Antelope Valley Young Marines is going to begin here.”
Marine Corps League member Ms. Yvette Goins and Young Marine PFC Curtis removed the paper covering the curb next to the yellow footprints, and Mr. Chinchilla announced, “This is now going to be known as Cooper’s Landing!” To the cheers and applause of Marines and guests, a curb painted in red was revealed to the Master Sergeant, in the center of which shined the words in yellow:
Top’s reaction was timeless. As 16-year-old Young Marine Lance Corporal Brandon Bellaflores recalls, “Top just took a step back and you could tell he was getting emotional. He loved it! It was so great to see…” YM/LCpl Bellaflores was one of three drill instructors the recruits met first on the yellow footprints.
Top Cooper is in the rear left corner, behind me (the tan-shirted Marine)
So MSgt. Cooper had never stood on yellow footprints. It wasn’t until two decades after he’d enlisted that the yellow footprints were first used by the Corps. Yet he was the one that laid them down for us. Later that beautiful October afternoon, joined by the dedicated staff of the Antelope Valley Young Marines, the Master Sergeant—dressed in his MCL blues and shining black corframs—stepped onto a pair of yellow footprints for the first time. These footprints will be the starting point for youths looking to change their lives for the better. The beginning for a few good kids.
We all have our memories of the yellow footprints, but I wonder if Top’s first time on them doesn’t beat them all—at Cooper’s Landing in Palmdale, CA. Semper fi, Top!
*Special thanks to Susan L. Hodges, Vice President of Administration, Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, and Dr. Stephen R. Wise, Museum Director, MCRD Parris Island. Upon contacting them, they found out for me the year that the yellow footprints were first used. (The exact date is unknown.)