Jerome Coopersmith has held many titles in his lifetime, and now, at 94, he can add a noble one to the list. On Nov. 12, the Rockville Centre resident was honored with the highest distinction of Chevalier, or Knight, in the National Order of the French Legion of Honor in recognition of his service to France in World War II.
“I am very proud, very honored,” Coopersmith said. “I am also happy to get it because I feel that the event helped cement our relationship to the French Republic at a time when some people are making flirtatious moves towards oligarchic dictatorships, and I wanted to take advantage of that opportunity.”
Coopersmith was one of three American veterans to receive the award, the highest French distinction for military and civil merit, which was established in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte and retained by all later French governments and régimes. He had learned about it through the 94th Infantry Historical Society’s newsletter, and since he fought two battles on French soil, he was eligible.
“The Legion of Honor is France’s highest distinction, which it bestows on men and women of high merit who have accomplished exceptional deeds for France,” Kyra Holland, a speechwriter and translator for the French Consulate, said.
The ceremony was held at the Lycée Francais, on East 75th Street in Manhattan. The other recipients were Gordon Kobler, of Greenwich, N.J., and Robert Merrill, of South Windsor, Conn. According to Holland, over the past 200-plus years, “France has awarded this distinction to intellectuals, scientists, artists, and philanthropists, and military men and women, among others.”
The list includes Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Hector Berlioz and Eugéne Delacroix as well as fellow Americans Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Colin Powell.
“The French Republic will never forget your sacrifice,” Anne-Claire Legendre, consul general of France in New York, told the honorees at the ceremony. “Your generation showed the utmost strength of soul. It risked its life to save men and women that it had never met, and to liberate a soil that it had, for the most part, never set foot on.”
Coopersmith served in the U.S. Army from 1943 to 1945, in the 94th Infantry Division. He is a recipient of a Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman Badge, Bronze Star Medal and European Theater of Operations Medal with three battle stars.
His unit was sent to Brittany in northern France several months after D-Day, in September 1944, and their mission was to surround the German submarine ports to prevent them from breaking out and interfering with Gen. George Patton’s advance toward the German border.
“The last squad to be removed was my squad,” Coopersmith said, noting he and a friend were the last two people on the perimeter facing the German submarine ports. He turned to his friend and said, “Do you realize we can tell our kids that you and I held back the whole German army by ourselves?”
Several months later, he found himself in a worse situation. He left Brittany and was sent to the Battle of the Bulge. “That was really bad news — the bullets were flying so thick, you just knew you would get hit,” Coopersmith said. “The only question was, where are you going to be hit. I found out.”
He was shot in the leg and then through the chest, with the bullet barely missing his heart. “The doctor said that the impact of the bullet made the heart move slightly, so the bullet was able to pass by the heart and not through it,” Coopersmith said. “Maybe someone was watching over me.”
He managed to crawl into a foxhole, where he stayed for 20 hours — fortunately he had access to ice, which prevented excessive bleeding. “When I was in there, I heard German voices passing by,” Coopersmith said. “Then morning came, and I heard a familiar voice.”
He was pulled out, sent to a field hospital and then shipped to a hospital in England before returning home. While he was recovering, he started thinking about a career in television based on the magazine articles he read proclaiming it to be “the next big thing.”
So, he returned to New York, completed his degree at New York University and “started knocking on doors of television producers.” Finally, he said, he landed a job as an assistant producer on a quiz show called “Americana Quiz,” where a panel of high school students answered questions from the audience about American history. If someone submitted a question that was used, they would win a set of encyclopedias.
“The problem was, none of the questions sent in by mail or from the audience were useful, so I had to make up all the questions,” Coopersmith said.
He submitted them with fictitious names and had the sets delivered to his apartment, as per his producer’s advisement. “My apartment was littered with sets of encyclopedias,” Coopersmith said, “but they made great gifts for bar mitzvahs and weddings.”
As an assistant producer, he came up with the idea of adding a five-minute dramatization of a historical event during the show, and volunteered to write it. “That’s when I found out I was good at this and that I liked it,” he said.
He became an award-winning writer for television and theater. He wrote hundreds of teleplays and had seven plays produced; his writing credits include the long-running television show “Hawaii Five-O” and the Broadway musical “Baker Street.”
At present he’s revising an old script to sell, and is also trying to get a musical produced.
He met his wife, Judy, at a Christmas party in Manhattan in 1956. “I sat down and started talking to her,” Coopersmith said, “and for the rest of the evening, neither of us talked to anyone else.”
They were married within a month, and soon had two daughters. They moved to Rockville Centre in 1960, and have stayed put for nearly 60 years. “We felt it was the right mix,” Judy said. “It’s a beautiful town and is convenient to the city.”
The couple has downsized from a house to an apartment, but Coopersmith still has a home office where he spends much of his time. His daughter Amy Coopersmith lives in East Northport, and his other daughter, Jill Lambert, lives in Rochester. They are both proud of their father, they said.
“He was so honored, it’s so meaningful,” Lambert said. “He followed in the footsteps of his own father by living a life of service and putting his own life before country.”
Coopersmith’s father fought in World War I, also in France, and received a Purple Heart. His mother was a nurse during the war and volunteered with the Veterans Administration in Northport until she died at age 103.
“It’s such a blessing he’s even alive,” Lambert said, referring to his bullet wound. “When I think of what he went through in saving our own democracy . . . we wouldn’t even necessarily be here if it weren’t for their efforts.”