Originally created 06/04/99

Hometown pays tribute to veteran



SYLVANIA, Ga. -- The streets of Sylvania are lined with 105 white crosses.

Printed on them are the names of Screven County's own who lost their lives in battle and the wars they were fighting for their country when they died.

Donald Cooper remembers some of the men who died in World War I. Mr. Cooper, who is 103 years old, was a soldier in the Great War, too.

"So many of them I know, are dead," Mr. Cooper said. "Several of them got killed. A white man got mashed between the ships. He told me to move out of the way. `I'll jump,' he said. And he missed.

"Years after, his children and grandchildren would say to me, `You saw daddy get killed."'

Donald Cooper's memories are mere glimpses into the century in which he's lived and the war he lived through.

For the first time in the 80 years since, Mr. Cooper was recognized publicly in his hometown, Sylvania, for his service in the Army during World War I.

He is believed to be the only surviving black World War I veteran in Georgia.

Mr. Cooper was inducted into the Army when he was 22. He served with the black unit, 327th Labor Battalion, abroad from July 10, 1918, to July 5, 1919. He was honorably discharged nine days after returning to the United States.

"Left here to go to Germany but went to Belfast," he said. "Stayed on the ocean a long time and I didn't want to go."

The skin on his fingertips is coarse from years of hard work as a farmer, laborer and school bus driver in Screven County, where he was born in 1895. His handshake is firm, his wit sharp and this week, especially, his pride is brimming.

"That's me in that picture," Mr. Cooper said, glancing at the front page of the community newspaper, the Sylvania Telephone, where he was pictured. "That's me."

Mr. Cooper's broad smile makes his dimples wider.

Both are evidence of the disarming charm and occasional feistiness he displays to his granddaughter and caretaker, Serena Gaines, and her children, Shanell and Michael.

"Sometimes he'll tell me bits and pieces," Ms. Gaines said. "And when he says move, you better move, honey."

Looking at a photocopy of a stevedore and labor battalion servicemen unloading a ship, his hand touched the thin page. "I climbed many of those," he said, pointing at the cranes. "That was the only place I was scared."

Bill Brannen, commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7116, plans to have Mr. Cooper become an honorary member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.