A flag for a soldier, 60 years later

Published 11:29 am Monday, September 24, 2012

Heiman Cohn, a World War II veteran who fought his way from the beaches of North Africa into the heart of Vichy France, woke up about a month ago to find one of the biggest surprises of his life.

Cohn, a spry 93-year-old, has lived in the Carriage House apartments on East Avenue for more than three decades, and last month, owner Bill Libbey erected a flag pole and plaque in Cohn’s honor.

“It’s the first thing anyone’s ever really done to me relating to the war, and it’s a big honor,” Cohn said.

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Libbey kept the plaque covered until one Sunday when he surprised Cohn with the marker.

“He’s always had a little flag he’s put outside his apartment,” Libbey said. “He’s a super nice man, and I think he was deserving of it.”

Cohn, who left the army as a major, salutes the flag every time he steps outside his door. He lowers it at night and raises it with care each morning.

It’s that flag and the ideals behind it that made Cohn put his life on the line six decades ago.

“They say golf is a game of inches. War is a game of inches. I never got a scratch,” Cohn said.

For that, Cohn considers himself lucky. In North Africa alone, he had numerous brushes with death — bullets through his coat, a sniper shooting off the toe of his shoe, a friend he had his arm around being struck in the chest with shrapnel and dying.

Italy and France, where Cohn landed on Utah Beach during the Normandy Invasion, were even more gruesome, he said, though he wouldn’t go into much detail.

“Anybody who tells you they weren’t afraid, they’re crazy,” Cohn said. “I guess I’m probably the luckiest guy in the world because I don’t dream about it.”

During a particularly fierce battle, Cohn was sitting in a fox hole listening to mortars drop close by.

“I said to myself you’re either going to live or die, you fool. I haven’t worried about anything since,” he said.

After graduating from Louisiana State University, Cohn, a Lorman native whose family ran Cohn Brothers Store, was drafted into the Army.

“I got my graduation certificate in this hand and my orders to the North Division in this hand,” he said.

In the Army, he originally was assigned to truck maintenance.

“The powers that be figured out that if I ran a gin — we had a cotton gin in Lorman — I could fix a truck,” he said.

Cohn still vividly remembers landing in Safi, Morocco, at 4:45 a.m. Nov. 8, 1942, and joining the forces led by Maj. Gen. George S. Patton.

“I would have followed that bastard to hell,” Cohn said. “You know what we called him? Blood and Guts. Our blood and his guts.”

When Nazi forces were repelled from North Africa, Cohn took part in the Invasion of Sicily before being diverted to England to prepare for D-Day.

Eventually Cohn was promoted to major and served as an aide to Lt. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

“I probably knew him better than most men,” Cohn said.

While fighting for the freedom of France, Cohn also fought for the freedom of his own family. His grandfather had immigrated from France in the 1860s, and his cousins still lived there during the war, he said.

In 1945, Cohn left the Army after receiving word that his father had fallen ill.

“I got five years with him after that,” Cohn said.

When Cohn returned to the United States, he landed in Washington, D.C., but his trunk arrived in New York. All its contents were stolen, and the only relic of the war he still has is a Colt .45-calibur pistol that he carried with him in battle. He bought the gun for $99 in Baton Rouge before he deployed to North Africa.

“I don’t know if I ever killed anyone with it. I didn’t stay around long enough to find out if they died,” Cohn said.

While in France, he had a French gunsmith customize the firearm, adding photographs of his wife, Jane, and his family encased in glass on each side of the pistol’s grip.

“This thing saved my life,” he said.