Williamstown High School football star killed in the Battle of the Bulge in 1945

In early February 1945, residents in Williamstown, Pennsylvania learned that yet another son had perished overseas. The family of Private Joe Lamar Cooper, 19, learned via telegram that their son had been killed serving with the 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 17th Airborne Division in heavy fighting with German forces near the Belgian village of Flamierge.

Joe Cooper
Private Joe L. Cooper (Williamstown – My Hometown)

Joe Lamar Cooper was born in Williamstown on June 25, 1926, the second of six children. His parents, Daniel Odell Cooper and Sara Duenger Cooper, raised their children in the coal mining district of Upper Dauphin County.

In high school, Cooper became a mainstay on varsity sports teams at Williamstown High School, playing baseball, basketball, but excelling as a lineman for town’s renowned football team.

Basketball
(Williamstown – My Hometown)
Football
The Williamstown High School Football Team, 1943 (Williamstown – My Hometown)

In his senior year at Williamstown High, Cooper played center on a team that tore through the opposition to claim the school’s first-ever undefeated season for legendary coach John Kopp.

By all accounts, Cooper excelled in school as well and claimed an astonishing record of perfect attendance lasting twelve years when he graduated in the spring of 1944. Upon graduation, Cooper already knew his destination – he had already enlisted in the U.S. Army on March 6, 1944. He volunteered for a parachute infantry unit and was shipped south for training at Camp Blanning, in Central Florida.

Through the summer of 1944, Cooper trained to be a paratrooper. He gained his wings in August of that year after completing jump training at Fort Benning, Georgia. Assigned to the 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 17th Airborne Division, Private Joe Cooper was destined for the campaign on the European continent when the unit shipped out for Europe in November 1944.

As the weather turned cold in December, the Germany Army, the Wehrmacht, launched a powerful offensive into the Ardennes Forest in Belgium that came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. The 17th Airborne Division was sent into the fray to help shore up American defenses near the crossroads town of Bastogne.

Private Cooper and the 513th PIR were sent west of Bastogne to attack German forces near the village of Flameriege on January 4, 1945. As the regiment moved forward on the evening of January 3, a member of Company B, 513th PIR remembered a disturbing sight. “This was our first encounter seeing dead frozen soldiers laying in the snow, both German and American,” wrote Private Albert Bryant.  “They didn’t look real.”

Their objective was high ground located near the Belgian town of Flamierge and the morning before their advance, the unit was shelled heavily by German artillery. Private Bryant wrote his impressions of this first experience in combat:

On the morning of the 4th, just as it started to get light the Germans started an artillery barrage on our position.  We are not safe in our fox hole because the artillery shells were going off in the tree tops and raining shrapnel down all around us…

There was snow on the ground and every time a shell hit and exploded it left a big black ring in the snow about fifty feet across.  I wondered at the time if the black ring represented the killing zone.  When it happened again I was glad to see one trooper get up and move out of the black zone on his own.  I was at this moment that I first experienced the sound of a bullet passing directly over my head.  I dropped to the ground and landed on top of my gas mask.  When I saw how much the mask elevated my hind end all I could think of was I was going to get my ass shot off!  I didn’t think twice about discarding my gas mask.

Through a heavy fire, companies A,B, and C of the 513th PIR began their attack on the high ground near Flamierge at 8 AM. They immediately faced stiff resistance.

“Company A on the left had halted when their scouts located eight tanks at the road junction with the Bastogne-Flamierge road,” wrote a battalion commander observing these operations from a nearby hilltop. Attempts to call in artillery strikes on the tanks failed. The commander’s report described what happened next:

Company A was ordered to attack the tanks after Company B secured the high ground located just north of the Bastogne-Marche road and south or the road junction. As Company B crossed the highway they came under machine gun and small arms fire from the front, and almost immediately they were hit on their left flank by direct fire from tanks which had moved during a brief period of fog to 200 yards east on the Bastogne road. This enemy force consisted of six tanks, two self-propelled 88’s, and infantry. Company B attempted to knock out this force with small- arms, bazooka, and mortar fire. In so doing the Company was annihilated, all members either killed or captured.

Private Albert Bryant’s recollection provides a first-hand account of Company B’s peril:

The Tiger tanks were shelling the tree tops that bordered the village.  The raining shrapnel caused me to give thanks that I was not in the village.  Our anti-tank weapons were useless against the German Tiger tanks.  When our bazookas fired a missile and it hit one of the tanks it might knock off a little metal but no real harm was done.  We had a trooper dug in with a bazooka about forty feet in front of us.  He fired the bazooka at a Tiger tank, the tank fired back and our trooper was directly hit by a eighty eight millimeter shell, one of his body parts landed near me.

Ultimately, these companies successfully took Flamierge but were forced back by determined German counterattacks. It is unclear precisely when Private Joe Cooper was killed, but it occurred somewhere during this assault when his regiment was outgunned by German armor and artillery on the road between Flamierge and Bastogne. The 513th were forced to retreat, leaving behind their dead to freeze in the snow. The town was eventually recaptured by the 17th Airborne on January 7, 1945.

Flamierge
A destroyed building in Flamierge, Belgium (17th Airborne Tribute)

Private Joe Lamar Cooper, the Williamstown High School football star, was only 19-years-old when he was struck down by fire during the Battle of the Bulge. His body was eventually located and identified. Cooper’s remains were initially buried in a temporary cemetery in France before a permanent resting place could be established. The earthly remains of Private Joe L. Cooper are now interred in the American War Cemetery, Luxembourg – Plot E, Row 16, Grave 49.

His family on West Market Street in Williamstown were informed of his death in early February 1945. The following obituary was published in the Williamstown Times on Friday, February 9, 1945:

Cooper

Paratrooper Joe Cooper Killed in Belgium on Jan. 4

Mr. and Mrs. Odell Cooper, West Market street, Williamstown, were informed by telegram from the War Department on Tuesday, February 6, that their son, Pvt. Joe L. Cooper, had been killed in action in Belgium on January 4. He had serving with a paratroop infantry division. The telegram on Tuesday followed one received on Saturday, Feb. 3, stating that he was missing in action.

Pvt. Cooper was born in Williamstown on June 26, 1925 and this coming June would have been 20 years old. He attended the Williamstown Public Schools, where he graduated last May with a perfect attendance record for the twelve years. While in high school he was a member of the varsity football team for four years and was on of the star players on Coach John Kopp’s 1943 undefeated eleven. He also played varsity basketball for two seasons and a like number of seasons on the High School baseball team. 

He was a member of the Evangelical Congregational Church where he sang in the Junior Choir and had a record of nine years perfect attendance in the Sunday School. 

Pvt. Cooper entered the service on March 6, 1944, and received his basic training at Camp Blanding, Florida, where he was awarded the good conduct medal and diploma for expert marksmanship. Later he was transferred to Fort Benning, Ga., where on August 18, after completing a course at jump school, was awarded his diploma and wings. He has been overseas since November 9, 1944.

To survive besides his parents, he leaves the following brothers and sisters: Mrs. Neal McCarthy, Dover, N.J.; Odell, Jr., Williamstown; Donald, Elaine, and Marlin at home. 


Featured Image: American forces fighting in the Ardennes Forest in January 1945. 

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2 thoughts on “Williamstown High School football star killed in the Battle of the Bulge in 1945

    1. Great work Jake. The first hand accounts and photographs really paint the picture. A sad story for Joe Cooper but it is good to remember what these men went thru.

      Liked by 1 person

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