THE BOYS FROM SKAGIT COUNTY
A Tale of Two Brothers
The village of Osceola appears today on a list of Washington State “ghost towns”; a dot on old maps just southeast of Enumclaw in King County. At the turn of the 19th century though, it was a town of hardy settlers, matching wits with a country still waiting to be tamed. It was here on the 8th of September, 1893, that the twins were born. Oscar came first – by a matter of minutes – then Auburn, his identical twin. They would be the second set of twins born to Elizabeth and Frank, who ended up with a family of eleven children. The twin boys would be five years of age when their maternal grandfather went off to the Yukon to seek his fortune in the great Gold Rush of 1898. Somewhere, beneath the debris of a landslide, he is still there.
Biology tells us that identical twins are unique, in that they develop in the mother’s womb from a single egg which then divides, thus endowing the two offspring with a genetic singularity which follows them throughout life. With Oscar and Auburn however, this duality would be even strengthened by the polishing effect of the environment in which they grew up. The family moved to Washington’s Skagit river valley, where farmland could be found amongst uncut forests of cedar and fir. It was a hardscrabble, pioneer life, made even more complicated when the river burst its bank, flooding the family out of their first homestead. For a short period, they even took up housekeeping in the hollowed out shell of a fallen Douglas fir, whose branches were burned as stove wood to heat the makeshift abode. It would not be their last experience with floodwaters and hard times.
When not in school, the two boys found work in the timber camps, and log drives around which life revolved in the northwest of the day. During summer months, they occupied a rough forest cabin, cutting cedar shakes and living off the country. With only their dog Pooty and each other for company, they had to contend with a raiding black bear, and at least one confrontation with a cougar. Together with flour for bread and beans for baking, their principle meat dish was roasted pheasant, and their hunting had to be done with a single-shot Stevens 30-30 rifle. In order to have anything left to eat, they learned to take their game with a head shot, a necessity which made them both expert marksmen.
Those who knew them during those growing up years will tell you that Auburn never went anywhere or did anything without Oscar, who would not take a girl to a dance unless she had a sister who could accompany Auburn. The two were inseparable as well as identical.
World War I – “The Great War” – had been going on for three years, and twenty million were already dead before President Woodrow Wilson finally got around to involving the United States. A surge of patriotism swept the country, and on May 3rd, 1917, Auburn and Oscar enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, along with a gaggle of Skagit county boys they had grown up with. They became the subject of some notoriety and a front page newspaper article when it was discovered that every inch of their body dimensions, and even their finger prints – except for one finger on each hand – were identical.
They trained together in California, where their superb marksmanship on the rifle range quickly got them noticed. Soon they were on their way to the battlefields of France, where the boys from Skagit County became the backbone of the 20th Company, 5th Marine Regiment. There, the twins were permitted to serve in the same Company, but not in the same squad.
By June, 1918, the war was not going well for the Allies, and the Germans were poised to finally capture Paris. As the French retreated from the lines they had been holding near Chateau Thierry, about 30 miles short of their capitol city, the Marines were left to carry out a poorly-planned attack, across a field of wheat and oats to the side of a copse of forest growth known as Belleau Wood – a small patch of landscape which was about to make the United States Marines the legendary service branch it has been ever since. No one told the Marine Brigade the Wood was filled with a numerically-superior German force whose machine guns had been laid out to cover every square yard of the open field. At dawn on June 6th, the 5th Marines launched the attack, with the 20th Company out front. Auburn’s squad was decimated by enemy fire, and he himself was felled by grenade shrapnel to the head and face. Oscar’s squad soon passed by, and Oscar saw enough to be sure his brother was dead. Spurred on by that knowledge, in the hours to follow, his battlefield performance would win him the Navy Cross and make him one of the most decorated Marines of the Great War.
As the grim battle swirled around him, Auburn was passed over by medics who left him with the dead where he lay until nightfall when those who came to collect the dead – Germans and Americans alike – determined he was alive. He would eventually spend nearly a year in hospitals in France and the U.S., much of that time unable to utter a word through the bandaged and wired facial wounds.
In a Naval hospital on the east coast he would meet a red-headed volunteer who would become his wife. They honey-mooned back in Washington, where the twins from Skagit County would be briefly reunited. Over the next forty years, divided by a continent, they would see each other only one more time.
The Battle of Belleau Wood is seen by historians as the turning point in the Great War – the “Gettysburg” of World War One. It gave the Marines the nickname “Devil Dogs” and defined the Corps forever after. The wounded and scarred twin from Skagit County refused the Purple Heart, and did not think he had done anything special. But he was a “hero” and a quiet inspiration to his four sons, two of whom would see action in other wars, and two who became Marines. His full name was Auburn Forest Cooper, and he was my Dad. On June 6th, every year, I proudly place his circular dog tag and the attached globe-and-anchor emblem from his uniform around my neck as I dress for the day.
The twins sat for a family photo, sometime prior to the World War which would change them both. Auburn, on the right, is obviously posed on a slightly higher step.