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Sorting out a soldier's story

The Baltimore Sun

I call them ghost hunters, people searching for a long-lost someone - a parent who gave them up for adoption, an uncle who disappeared over the Himalayas, a son declared MIA near the Xe Pon River in Laos.

A few times each year, I get a phone call or a letter asking for help in settling a mystery or making a connection. One time, it was the mayor of a French village seeking the Baltimore relatives of an American soldier who had been killed in its liberation in 1944. Sometimes, there's a crime involved, real or suspected - a daughter believed to have been abducted, or a son stabbed to death on his way home from a barroom, his killer still at large.

Many people live with ghosts and questions.

This time, we have the tragic matter of Avonn T. Cooper, a Baltimore soldier whose death in 1941 at Fort Meade always troubled his family. There isn't much to offer here in the way of heroics. This is not the story of an Army private at long last honored for valorous service. Cooper was a prisoner at Fort Meade at the time he was shot to death, and he was shot to death trying to escape.

Sixty-seven years later, his brother, David Manning of Towson, and his sister, Flora Fitzgerald of Perry Hall, still have questions about how and why Avonn Cooper died.

Fitzgerald was just a little girl at the time.

Manning wasn't even born. He didn't get the details until he was a teenager and about to go into the military himself. He spotted his mother, Roxie, crying one day, asked why and got as much of the story as she knew or was willing to tell.

"This was always a difficult thing for the whole family to talk about," Manning said this week. "Extremely painful for my mother."

Cooper was the son of Manning's mother and her first husband. Cooper enlisted in the Army in the fall of 1939, when he would have been 19 years old. He was assigned to Fort Bragg, N.C., but left the base in August 1940 and returned to his hometown. He supposedly deserted because he had been denied permission to visit his mother, who was ill at the time. That's what Fitzgerald was always told.

According to a report in The Sun, Cooper went AWOL, stayed in Baltimore and had a job here for several months. At his mother's behest, he surrendered to the Army in May 1941. He was sentenced to a year in prison and confined to Fort Meade, The Sun reported, though "the sentence had not been approved by higher Army authorities."

Four months into his sentence, Cooper and another prisoner planned an escape. The second private somehow got off the base, stole a car and drove it to another area of the fort. Cooper, on a work detail, reportedly jumped off a garbage truck and ran toward the car. He was shot once from behind by a guard. The Sun of Aug. 14, 1941, reported that Cooper died of a single shotgun wound to the neck. The second prisoner, also from Baltimore, was arrested the next day at his mother-in-law's house on Gay Street.

Flora Fitzgerald has distinct memories of the news of the death of a brother she idolized and of how it tore her mother apart. She also remembers attending Avonn Cooper's funeral at Fort Meade and says it was "with full military honors."

That's a question David Manning always had - how an Army private accused of desertion, and shot while trying to escape, would have been given full honors.

"I am a veteran and have a lot of experience with military funerals," Manning wrote. "Had he been committing a crime when he was killed there would have been no honors or even a military funeral."

But we checked The Sun's archives again and found a news story from the Sunday edition of Aug. 17, 1941. According to the report, the post chaplain at the time, Maj. John Westerman, conducted the service and a squad from the 93rd Infantry Battalion "escorted the body to the post cemetery, firing three volleys over the grave."

Manning still doesn't understand that.

He also wonders what led to his brother's problems and, ultimately, his death. "Anyone who knew him always said that it was so atypical for Avonn to have done what he was accused of doing," Manning said. "My father had been in the military, and he tried to find out more but never could. ... I had an uncle, on my mother's side, who tried to track down the guard who shot [Cooper] but could never get to him. ... There are things about this that don't seem right."

Manning might never get all his questions answered, and he understands that.

"At this late stage in our lives," he said, "my sister and I are only interested in determining the certain location of our brother's remains and closing this still deeply painful affair for our family."

Some 40 years ago, Manning drove to Fort Meade and walked among the graves there and never found his brother's.

I called Fort Meade yesterday and spoke with Alice Ginter, the real property officer. She looked up records and found Avonn Cooper's grave in the post cemetery - section B, site line I R - and invited his brother and sister to visit. They will now get to stand by their big brother's grave. They at least get that.

Dan Rodricks can be heard on "Midday," Mondays through Thursdays, noon to 2 p.m., on 88.1 WYPR-FM.


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