Culver City Observer -

Female Veteran Still Doing Good Deeds at 105

 

By Sandra Coopersmith

Features writer

Doing good deeds (or "mitzvahs," as Bea Abrams Cohen refers to them) must be an effective prescription for longevity, as it is probably her desire to help others that has kept this inspiring woman, who is California's oldest living female veteran at 105, going strong all these years.

The Culver City Senior Center's Veterans Group, which meets on the first Monday of the month, had Cohen slated as April's guest speaker but she was ill and unable to attend. She was rescheduled for the May 4 meeting but health issues again prevented her from coming. However, she was still agreeable to sharing her experiences so Marilyn Hess, the resourceful leader of the Veterans Group, arranged for this interview to take place at Cohen's residence later that afternoon.

"Bea is an amazing person on so many levels," Hess said. "She's presently in a hospital bed and on oxygen and medication, but still wants to do things for veterans."

The interview quickly became a Hess family project as Hess, who had an appointment elsewhere following the Veterans Group meeting, recruited her husband and daughter to play key roles in making this article possible. Bob Hess kindly provided transportation to and from Cohen's residence, and Audrey Hess graciously came along to take photos of some of the awards and mementos in Cohen's room.

Talking with Cohen was tantamount to taking a trip in a time machine.

Born in Romania in 1910, she remembered witnessing the beginning of WWI when she was four as low-flying planes dropped bombs on her town's factories. Cohen and her family came to the United States in 1920, and a host of war-related memories proceeded to weave themselves into her life's design over the ensuing years.

One of those memories is of when KCET named her a Local Hero in 2012. "As an immigrant, I am proud to be an American by choice," she said at that time. "When I went into the service, I didn't ask them what the benefits were. I wanted to serve, to pay back for allowing me to become an American."

And America gratefully responded to her commitment.

Cohen has received many awards and commendations during her lifetime of service, including being named "Veteran of the Game" at Dodger Stadium and throwing out the first pitch on Army Night, June 12, 2012. She was also honored for her wartime contributions at a state Capitol celebration during Women's Military History Week in 2012. Photographs on her dresser show her with many notables, including Governor Jerry Brown and First Lady Michelle Obama.

Sometimes a front seat to history can be found at the movies. It was for Cohen, who had gone to the Pantages Theatre on Dec. 7, 1941 to see "Gone With the Wind," but after only a few minutes the screen went blank, the lights went on and a stupefied audience heard the announcement that "We're at war. Go home." Pearl Harbor had been bombed.

Cohen's first contribution to the war effort was an unusual one. It involved collecting black widow spiders and sending them to USC in order for their strong webs to be used in the crosshairs in the sites of submarine periscopes.

After taking classes to learn everything one could possibly want to know about rivets, she became a real-life "Rosie the Riveter" at Douglas Aircraft Company. She remembers her petite stature requiring her to stand on a box to perform certain tasks. Despite being offered a raise to stay, she enlisted in the Women's Army Corps and was sent to England as a Private First Class where her duties included working in the communications department with top-secret documents. She also sang in the choir and played on an all-female baseball team.

Not only did Cohen see air strikes during her service, on June 6, 1944 she was on a morning train to her new post in England when she heard the roar of motors and saw the sky fill with Allied airplanes and gliders. They were en route to the shores of Normandy to support of the D-Day invasion.

She had come full circle from witnessing the beginning of WWI as a child in Europe to seeing planes and gliders about to mark the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.

Shortly after the war ended she returned to California and, following a quick courtship, married Ray Cohen, a Marine gunnery sergeant who'd been a POW in Corregidor Island in the Philippines and evidenced the rigors of his imprisonment when they met.

Cohen, a passionate advocate for veterans, touched on the horrors of war, the incredible hardships experienced by many in service, and her concern that their sacrifices never be forgotten. "People must always remember," she emphasized.

"My husband suffered for three and a half years as a prisoner," she said. "He barely survived on a little bowl of rice a day, and would eat bugs and worms for protein. He and the other boys suffered so much."

For many decades the Cohens worked together helping fellow veterans, ex-POWs and military family services groups. As a veteran, she has actively contributed considerable time and effort to a number of philanthropic causes and organization.

She served as chairperson for child welfare at the Jewish War Veterans Auxiliary. From 1961 to 2011 she took upholstery classes, making wheelchair and walker bags as well as robes and blankets that she provided to veterans. She was involved with the United Cerebral Palsy/Spastic Children's Foundation for over 35 years. Her volunteer activities also included the Los Angeles Air Force Base for Family Services and the City of Hope.

Engaging in philanthropic activities has been her way of life despite becoming legally blind in 1990 and losing her beloved husband in 2003 after being together for almost 60 years. With a very active Jewish life, at age 100 she even became a bat mitzvah at Temple Akiba.

This remarkable woman's latest focus is the collection of clean, white socks for homeless veterans.

Carry on, Mrs. Cohen, and please feel better very soon. We salute you for all you have done and continue to do.

 

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