May 23, 2012
Calif.‘s oldest female vet, 102, reaches out with compassion
This Memorial Day, World War II Veteran Bea Abrams Cohen will be attending ceremonies at Los Angeles National Cemetery, paying tribute to all the men and women who have died fighting while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. But for this 102-year-old resident of Los Angeles, who is certainly California’s oldest female veteran — and possibly the oldest nationwide — it’s the living veterans, especially those who are suffering or in need, who have garnered most of her attention these past seven decades. “I want them to be treated with dignity and compassion,” Cohen said recently.
She backs up her words with actions. Last winter, walking into the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center, Cohen saw veterans going sockless. She promptly requested that all guests at her 102nd birthday party, celebrated by more than 150 people at the Radisson Hotel Los Angeles Airport on Feb. 21, bring new white socks to donate to the veterans. She collected more than 700 pairs.
Cohen knows firsthand the toll war can take on a family. She was born Shayna Bayla Hershcovi on Feb. 3, 1910, in Bucharest, Romania, the third child of Joseph and Matilda Hershcovi. She never knew her father; he died a soldier in the Romanian army when she was 3.
Her widowed mother, a seamstress, moved the family to the village of Buhusi. There, she agreed to an arranged marriage with Hyman Abrams, who had moved from Buhusi to Fort Worth, Texas, in 1890, and who had become a widower when his wife died after the birth of their ninth child. “He knew no American woman would agree to take care of nine children,” Cohen said. Abrams sent money, and the family prepared to leave.
But soon after, Bea and her family heard unusual noises and ran outside to see airplanes — a strange and wondrous sight — flying very low across the sky. Cohen waved at one of the pilots. “He had a mustache,” she said. She believes the planes were headed to bomb a nearby factory. It was 1914 and the beginning of World War I. The family’s departure to America was delayed.
Finally, they arrived in Fort Worth, in 1920, with Cohen, her sister and mother dressed in red wool coats with lamb collars and buttons specially tailored by her mother. Cohen adjusted to her new, large family and enrolled in both public and Hebrew school. She was confirmed and also graduated high school.
In 1929, following one of Abrams’ older daughters, Cohen, her mother, Hyman Abrams and one brother relocated to Los Angeles, living off West Adams Street, near a kosher chicken shop and a few blocks from Beth Jacob Congregation. The rest of the children eventually joined them. Cohen attended school to learn shorthand and bookkeeping. After a short stint at the May Co., she worked at Adele’s Sportswear. Hyman Abrams, whom Cohen called Papa, died in 1939.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Cohen was on a movie date at the Pantages Theatre, located downtown, when, after 10 minutes, the screen went dark, the lights went up and a voice announced, “We’re at war. Go home.” Cohen was stunned.
Soon after, she returned to school to learn riveting, and she subsequently was hired by Douglas Aircraft Co. in Santa Monica, working the 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift. “We never knew what kinds of planes we were working on. It was top secret,” she said.
But Cohen wanted to do more to pay back America. She joined the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) toward the end of 1942, at age 32, turning down a 5-cents-an-hour raise offered by Douglas Aircraft. After completing basic training in Des Moines, Iowa, Cohen was stationed in Utah and Colorado.
She then enlisted in the new Women’s Army Corps (WAC), which, unlike WAAC, was part of the regular Army. She was stationed overseas at Elveden Hall, 90 miles from London, and there, as Pfc. Abrams, she worked with top-secret mimeographed documents. Soon after she arrived, she again heard planes flying overhead. She went outside to see the sky full of American bombers heading to Normandy, France, for D-Day.
Cohen returned home on Sept. 28, 1945. In early November, she met Ray Cohen, who had been a Marine gunnery sergeant and was imprisoned on Corregidor Island in the Philippines for more than three years. They married on Jan. 28, 1946, and had two daughters, Janice and Susan.
Cohen joined a group for former prisoners of war with her husband. Also, in 1955, she joined the Jewish War Veterans and became chairwoman for child welfare, where she worked with the United Cerebral Palsy-Spastic Children’s Foundation for 35 years, including initiating annual visits to Disneyland for the children.
Cohen became legally blind in 1990, and her husband died in 2003, but neither tribulation slowed her pace or her passion.
Today, Cohen continues to attend monthly POW meetings for family members and volunteers most Wednesdays at the Veterans Home of West Los Angeles during bingo games. She also has an active Jewish life, becoming a bat mitzvah at age 100 at Culver City’s Temple Akiba and attending Shabbat services there several times a month. She also prepares a seder every year, doing most of the cooking herself.
In addition to collecting new white socks, Cohen, after seeing amputee veterans sitting uncovered in their wheelchairs, began collecting lap robes — knit, crocheted or quilted 50-by-50-inch blankets. “I need some, if anybody wants to make a donation,” she said during an interview. In fact, whenever she goes to a doctor’s appointment or a meeting at the VA, she always brings a lap robe or two and some new socks. And she always finds grateful recipients.
Cohen will also be participating in a new gardening group to be held at the Veterans Home of West Los Angeles, bringing gladiolus and hydrangea cuttings from her yard.
And as if that’s not enough, this veteran who took upholstery classes off and on from 1961 to 2011 and who proudly displays her self-upholstered chairs and sofa in her Westchester home, is looking for a location and funding for an upholstery class for returning or unemployed veterans who want to learn a trade.
“Never forget our veterans,” Cohen told a reporter. “They are our heroes.”
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