Wally Beene Gary Cooper and Bob Cutts with The War Trophy in Las Vegas in 1994

Letter from Gary Cooper to Wally Beene

Gary Cooper (1944-2022) was a photojournalist who began his career as a reporter for the Pacific Stars and Stripes (PSS) in the mid-60s. He covered various stories during his time there, including a page one story in the July 13, 1966, Pacific Stars and Stripes newspaper. After leaving the PSS, Cooper worked for the Miami Herald, where he continued to excel, covering a wide range of topics.

Cooper’s dedication to journalism continued as he later retired from a local newspaper in Delaware. He was a respected member of the journalism community and will be remembered for his contributions to the field.

To learn how The National Stars and Stripes Museum and Library received the AK-47 in our Vietnam War Exhibit, read this letter to Wally Beene by striper Gary Cooper:


Dear Wally,

It’s been a long way since the wilds of Trong Tan Bu but, like it or not, many of those memories remain fairly vivid.

I was the reluctant reporter; as I recall, and you were the go- getter. And if it hadn’t been for you I probably never would have left the clutches of the villa and bounded off for the jungle.

But you were, and I did, and as it turned out I stumbled into a mighty good story. That’s the story behind the story.

Thanks to a kick in the pants from you I discovered I could write and I walked into an experience that, well, I guess in a lot of ways changed my life.

It led to confidence for me and, not long afterward, a job with the Miami Herald, where I was able to distinguish myself.

Not that, ultimately, I did anything very worthwhile. To the contrary, I’ve kind of frittered it away. But that’s another story.

I want to say that I’m happy to be in touch. And I’m happy to hear you still have the AK-47.

After the ambush I carried it back to the villa with no problem. Then it was time to return to Tokyo and I wanted to keep it. After all, it was a weapon that shortly before had been used in an effort to eliminate me. Now, it was mine.

Problem was, how to transport it from Saigon to Tokyo. And not directly, either. Because Kramer, my travel mate, and I intended to visit Bangkok before flying to Tokyo.

In a burst of inspiration, I spied Bob Cutts’ guitar in a corner at the villa. Bob, of course, wasn’t there. He never was. He was out in the field working. The hardest working correspondent anyone had ever seen.

So I grabbed his guitar, rationalizing that this was no doubt a cheap instrument easily replaced, and hacked out a hole in the back. Using tape, I afixed the AK-47 to the guitar. It had, I remember, only a simple cloth carrying container.
Then off we went, Kramer and myself, to Tan Son Utt and Clark Air Base in the Philippines, briefly, I think, and a connection to Bangkok. Me carrying, as casually as I could, this weapon peppered with buckshot. Besides Bangkok, there was a stop in Taiwan. And I remember at least once, because of security, considering abandoning the “guitar” in a men’s room.

Honestly, I have no idea why I wasn’t caught, but I wasn’t. And I actually carried that contraband from Saigon, via the Philippines, Thailand and Taiwan, to Tokyo.

Kramer and I strolled through Tachikawa, he with a bag of dirty laundry, me with that plus the mute automatic weapon.

Then, later, I was confronted with the problem of how to get the thing Stateside and you stepped forward with your gallant solution–you would send it with your household goods.

And the rest is history.

Well, almost. What I would like to do, eventually, is deliver the AK-47 to the Stripes museum in Missouri. I think it might make for a rather dramatic display, alongwith this helmet I have that was being worn by the GI in front of me. He took a shot in the head and I patched him up then put his helmet on. Later I discovered the bullet holes in it.

If you are planning to attend the reunion this year in San Antonio perhaps you could bring the AK-47 with you and I could get it from you there. Or we can make other arrangements.

Please let me know what you think.

All the best,