Today is called Independence Day, to celebrate freedom for America and all who live in this country. Maybe nobody knows the cost of that freedom better than a 90-year-old widow by the name of Kathleen Cooper.
In the living room of her Rock Hill retirement home apartment, surrounded by American flags, is a flagpole. The flag on it is the Catawba Chapter flag of Prisoner of War survivors. Attached to the pole are 31 hand-embroidered sashes with names of the late troops from York, Chester and Lancaster counties who had their freedom taken away. The wives who waited for those prisoners, and have died, have embroidered sashes, too.
“These people knew what freedom and what Independence Day means,” said Kathleen Cooper. “They all gave part of their lives for it. Or all of their lives for it.”
The name James Cooper is on a sash. Lancaster’s James Cooper died in 2008, at age 90. He and Kathleen had been married since 1938. He enlisted in the Army at age 26, during World War II. He left his wife for the other love of his life.
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But in 1945, after almost two straight years of infantry and hand-to-hand combat in France, Belgium and Germany where James Cooper had to kill so much to survive as part of a unit with the 3rd Infantry called the “Blue and White Devils” because of their ferocity, he was captured. For 95 days in captivity, he was marched by the Nazis.
“They starved him, they broke him,” said his wife, Kathleen. “Finally, they were liberated. But I didn’t know that then. We all thought he was dead.”
Back in South Carolina, the family had received a telegram months before, stating James Cooper was missing in action.
James T. Cooper, a tough farm boy of 156 pounds when he enlisted, muscles all over the place working at the Springs textile mill in Lancaster, weighed 73 pounds when he was freed.
There were no computers, no cell phones in those days. Country people didn’t have regular phones either. Kathleen Cooper only found out her husband was alive when he showed up back in Lancaster alive. From the bus station in town to the farm, more than 10 miles, James Cooper walked back to his life.
James Cooper, a father of four children, a husband, was never the same after all that killing he had to do, all the brutality he endured as a prisoner. He was disabled in the place that mattered most – his mind.
“His nerves were shot, he couldn’t work, he would just fall out, fall over,” said Kathleen Cooper. “He never recovered from the war.”
For decades, Kathleen and her husband worked with prisoners of war, and their families, mostly from World War II. There are a few of them still around. One of them is Pete Wylie from Chester. After almost three full years of combat, Wylie was captured and for four months was marched, starved and stuck in a German prison camp. He ate nothing but a few rotten potatoes.
Pete Wylie, 88 now, knows what freedom means.
“It means a lot, this holiday July the 4th,” Wylie said. “Freedom is one of those things you sure know when you don’t have it. I treasure it.”
Wylie was able to come back and live a long and productive life. He is not done living it, either.
James Cooper is gone, yet his wife, Kathleen, will not let the memory of him or others fade away. That POW flag she has, and those sashes she paid big money to have done by hand, will be donated this summer to the museum housed at the refurbished historic Lancaster County Courthouse.
“My husband, he lived a long life, but truth is he gave his life for his country because of what he had to go through,” Kathleen Cooper said. “He lost his freedom, so that others would be free.”
Today, on July 4, Independence Day, Pete Wylie said he will stay home and watch the country celebrate. His health is not great.
Kathleen Cooper at 90 will look at television and around Rock Hill and see Americans expressing the joys of freedom. She will look at the wall and see the pictures of her husband, and the plaques on the wall, and know that July 4 is a holiday the world envies because of her husband and other POWs like him.