Taps for Jerry Cohen, From Brooklyn to Eternity
by Roger Bennet Adler
On a cold mid-January morning, Sherman’s Funeral Home in Midwood, Brooklyn was the designated venue for the official send off to 92 year-old Jerry Cohen, who died of natural causes in his own home. In a sense, Brooklyn also stood tall as Jerry’s Jewish war veteran colleagues, many our last representatives of, to use Tom Brokaw’s term, “The Greatest Generation,” saluted their deceased colleague, who completed his last mission.
Jerry Cohen was physically short, reportedly 5’6” at his tallest, and then a teenaged resident of hardscrabble Depression era Coney Island when World War II began. Not a great student (he attended Alexander Hamilton Vocational High School), at 17 he pestered his father, Abe (a World War I veteran), into signing parental authorization to enlist in the Navy. Jerry didn’t wait for the arrival of his draft notice in the mail to take up arms to defend America.
After basic naval training, he found himself assigned to a number of naval vessels stationed in the Pacific Theater, the most significant of which was the U.S.S. Nashville, a light naval cruiser. One of the distinguished military officials to find themselves a passenger on the Nashville was General Douglas MacArthur, and his staff, who were en route to the Philippines Islands, to fulfill the “I will return” promise, made when Corregidor fell, and General Wainwright surrendered to the Japanese.
While bound for the Philippines Islands, Jerry is said to have met, spoke to, and received a pouch of General McArthur’s favorite pipe tobacco. Jerry served as coxswain on MacArthur’s landing craft, which transported the General to a staged landing (with three separate newsreel film takes) back to the Philippines.
Life is frequently more about luck than skill. Jerry was serving on the U.S.S. Nashville in the Philippines when a Japanese kamikaze pilot crashed his airplane into it. Gasoline fires, and exploding ammunition, killed 133 sailors, and wounded 190 – Jerry was one of the wounded sailors to be awarded the Purple Heart.
Following his honorable discharge from the Navy after the war-ending treaty was signed on Tokyo Bay, Jerry returned home to Brooklyn. He attended Long Island University at night on the G.I. Bill, and worked days supporting his family. He subsequently enrolled in Brooklyn Law School, attending night school while running bingo parlors during the daytime at various Brooklyn venues, and graduated in 1958. Among his law school classmates were the parents of our own Avery Eli Okin, the longtime Executive Director of the Brooklyn Bar Association!
Following service as Municipal Court Law Secretary to Judge Harold McLaughlin, Jerry entered private civil practice. In 1974, Jerry ran for the Democratic nomination in the old 45th Assembly District, as the candidate of Herb Lupka’s “Kings Highway Democratic Club.” His opponent, running as an insurgent, was a young Harvard Law School graduate who had previously graduated from James Madison High School named Chuck Schumer. Chuck, as we know, later represented Brooklyn in the House of Representatives, and now as New York’s Senior U.S. Senator, and the Senate’s Democratic Leader. Who knows how history would have turned out had Herb Lupka squeezed out a few more votes?
In 1979, Jerry was elected a Civil Court Judge, serving until elected to State Supreme Court in 1984. A major professional blemish was his indictment by then Kings County District Attorney Elizabeth Holtzman in connection with the then “Hyfin” Credit Union investigation. He proceeded to trial in Supreme Court, Kings County, ably represented by the legendary Al Brackley, Esq., before Justice Peter McQuinn, testified in his own defense, and was acquitted in April, 1987. The core of the People’s case was based upon the testimony of Hyfin’s manager, Eddie Lee, who awarded Jerry $127,000 in interest-free loans at a time when he was placing $241,206 from 55 children’s trust funds, at the the same Credit Union. Notwithstanding the acquittal, he was removed from the bench.
Following Jerry’s return to private practice, he continued to remain active, with an office on Montague Street. He supported the the Jewish War Veterans, the Lion’s Club, and the cause of Freedom for Soviet Jewry. He was a vibrant fixture (and vocal presence) at regular Brooklyn Heights breakfast meetings with local lawyers.
Any who met or knew Jerry were favorably struck by his winning smile, warm personality, and lack of pretense. Whether this upbeat “what you see is what you get” persona was genetic or acquired, it was a character trait which was pleasantly refreshing in an age of hype and spin.
As we reflect back on a full life, perhaps the most significant takeaway is that his three sons, all accomplished, spoke highly of Jerry as a father. They loved him, just as they knew he loved them – unconditionally.
Jerry Cohen may not have been without blemish, but then again, which of us truly is? His overarching life theme, though, is that he took a working class, hardscrabble upbringing, and in his nine-plus decades of life, didn’t “mail it in.” He was personally engaged, and participated. Like the film character “Maggio,” the serviceman Frank Sinatra made famous in the great film “From Here to Eternity,” Jerry was a Maggio – a man short in stature, but big in courage, heart, and good will to others.
Most significantly, when the call to duty was sounded, Jerry instinctively dashed to the bridge and did his duty with courage and dedication in defense of our nation. We truly owe Jerry, and his generation, a debt incapable of being fully repaid. Taps has (figuratively) now been sounded. He answered our nation’s call with both courage, and grace under fire. We are the better that he was on our side. May his memory be for a blessing.
Roger Bennet Adler is a practicing attorney in New York City, and previously served as counsel to various state Senate committees.