7/23/2010 - LOS ANGELES AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Many people who visit Los Angeles AFB have led extraordinary lives of dedication and service to our country. One such person is Bea Cohen, a former riveter, Women's Army Corps member and wife of an ex-POW, who people can often find shopping at the Base Exchange and Commissary. Another interesting fact...she's 100 years old. Some might consider her a diamond in the rough; well-spoken and candid, she bears stories and insights from her accomplished and lengthy past.
When asked what it was like being a riveter, she said, "I get very emotional, because to me, it's paying back being an American. I wanted to represent my family," she said.
A Romanian native, Cohen still recounts a vivid memory from when she was four years old in the Jewish settlement, Buhushi. She and her mother, brother and sister were all in the house when they heard a loud noise outside. She said people were running out of their houses to the see the sky filled with planes.
"Everyone said, 'Look how low they are, look how low they are!'" Cohen said. She remembers the planes didn't have covers, and she waved to the pilot, who waved back. She then watched him fly to the nearest factory, where her mother had worked as a seamstress, to drop bombs.
"That was the beginning of World War I," she said. Cohen would encounter a very similar scene 30 years later.
When she was 10, she came through Ellis Island to the United States in 1920 with her mother, brother and sister. An arrangement had been made for her mother to marry a man with nine children, but by the time they arrived, there were six children left. Cohen was raised to work hard for what she had. As immigrants, her family had to be self-supporting and could not be on welfare.
After World War II started, Cohen wanted to make a contribution. She went to school to learn all about rivets: "Round rivets, flat rivets, big rivets, little rivets," she said. "I learned how to rivet, and then they sent me to Douglas to go to work."
She worked for the Douglas Aircraft Company in Santa Monica where she discovered a world of secrecy.
"Each section was unaware of what the other sections were doing so no one knew how the plane all fit together," she said. "There was also a camouflaged tarp that covered the entire parking lot outside. It had fake houses to make it look like a little town from up above," she said.
Although she found her job interesting, at 33 she decided she wanted to join the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps in 1942, with jobs for women such as clerks, operators, waitresses, cooks and instructors. One caveat was they had to work while wearing gas masks much of the time. When she told her boss at Douglas she was leaving to join the WAAC, he offered her a raise of five more cents an hour to stay at Douglas.
"This was a lot more money at the time," Cohen said, "but I said, 'No, I'm going in!'"
Although there were many women who worked as riveters at Douglas, far less women actually joined the service. Cohen met many women who were married and older than her at Basic Training in Des Moines, Iowa. Much like Basic Training today, Cohen said every thing and everyone had to be lined up and facing the same way. She said there was so much work to be done, and some of the WAACs slept on the floor so they didn't wrinkle their sheets.
"The sergeant came out and said, 'You get back into bed!'" she said.
Cohen's first duty station was in Utah where she did office work, and then her detachment was sent to Denver. In 1943, she went a step further and took a second oath to become part of the Women's Army Corps, which absorbed the WAAC into the Regular Army. WAC became part of the Army itself rather than just serving alongside it. Soon after, she was recommended to go overseas, and on June 6, 1944, 30 years after she was a child in Romania during World War I, she saw the sky filled with planes again as part of the Normandy invasion.
While overseas, she worked in England on a mimeograph machine, a low-cost printing press that worked by forcing ink through a stencil onto paper. After two years in the military, Cohen was discharged from the service and came home to Los Angeles.
On Nov. 4, 1945, she was delivering a message to her mother's friend who lived across the street, and she set eyes on the man she would marry a year later, Marine Master Sgt. Ray Cohen. She soon learned he'd been a Prisoner of War for 42 months on Corregidor, an island in the entrance of the Philippines' Manila Bay. On Jan. 28, 1946 they were married, and soon after had two daughters, Janiece and Susan. Her husband was stationed in Korea in 1952 and for 13 months Cohen and the girls had to be apart from him. Despite her hardships, she is a huge supporter of the military and has been a lifelong volunteer of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States.
"I don't want people to forget the ex-POWs because they gave their health and their life to help us be safe," she said.
Her husband retired in 1955, and they lived a happy life together until he passed away on Feb. 11, 2003, at age 87. They were married 57 years.
Cohen has lived a very full life thus far, and she hasn't forgotten her roots: "Being an immigrant, singing the national anthem is not just words to me," Cohen said. "To me it means a lot more. I'm grateful having become an American," she said.