The Malibu community came out in the rain to celebrate a hero Saturday and to wish him a happy 100th birthday.
Martin Copenhafer was born in Chicago on Jan. 22, 1921. He joined the Navy in 1942 and went on to become a quartermaster. Copenhafer was assigned to the amphibious force, or LST (landing ship tank), duty. The huge LSTs transported equipment and troops to the fronts. Copenhafer first shipped out to the Mediterranean for the invasion of Sicily after picking up troops in North Africa. While in Sicily, Copenhafer’s ship was bombed by a German Messerschmitt. His LST caught fire and sank, but Copenhafer was able to swim to safety. After a short leave in the U.S., Copenhafer was assigned a new LST to participate in the Normandy Invasion on D-Day in 1944—the largest seaborne invasion in history and an important turning point in the Allied victory against Hitler and Nazi Germany. Copenhafer’s ship stayed on as a floating hospital and mortuary. After more wartime duty in England, Copenhafer was shipped back to the Mediterranean to participate in the invasion of southern France.
Later in the war, Copenhafer’s duties shifted to the Pacific theater. In 1945, at war’s end, he was discharged from service and made his way back to California where his family had moved.
It was there where Copenhafer established himself as a civil servant, spending 35 years as a tax assessor in LA County. Upon the occasion of his 100th birthday, he received accolades of recognition for his long career and service to his country from LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, California State Senator Henry Stern and Malibu Mayor Mikke Pierson.
But those who came out to celebrate him on Saturday recognized not only his heroic service to the country, but his deep commitment to his family.
Copenhafer’s caregiver of the past four years has been his devoted nephew, Ron Copenhafer. The two have been close since Ron’s mother died giving birth. While Ron was raised by his grandparents because his father was serving in the Army, Martin Copenhafer has been a constant presence in Ron’s life.
“When I was in the Air Force, I wanted to buy a motorcycle,” Ron recalled, sharing an anecdote about his uncle. “This blew my mind: I get a letter in the mail from Martin and in it [were] U.S. war bonds that he bought in the Navy. My name was on them. He bought them for me. He was my uncle—I had no idea he had done this. He really did so much for me.”
And it wasn’t just him, the younger Copenhafer recalled—Martin went out of his way to support his extended family.
“He was a very family-oriented person,” Ron said. “Anybody in the family could come to him with any kind of problem and he would do his very best to help them solve it.”
Martin Copenhafer never married. He bought a house for his parents and nephew to live in while he rented an apartment a mile away. In 1969, he moved to Malibu. Ron eventually got married and had his own family in Northern California, but said, “I had made up my mind if my uncle got to the point where his parents were—and I saw how he treated them—I would be there for him.” Ron got a call four years ago from a cousin that Martin could use help, by then at age 96.
“It was easy for me,” Ron said. “There’s only one thing to do. I’m going to retire and get there as soon as I can.”
Ron said he was proud to call Martin his uncle.
“He allowed my grandparents to raise me in such a wonderful way,” Ron said. “He took me hunting, fishing—he did so much with me growing up. He was the patriarch of the family. If a family member needed a loan, help—they could always go to Martin. He would do anything he could for them.”
Ron was also inspired by his family to serve his country: “My dad and uncle were in the military. That’s what Copenhafers did.”
The community birthday party for his uncle was a success. About 30 people drove up to wish Martin Copenhafer a happy and healthy 100th birthday, with some stopping by for socially distanced cake and beverages.
“He had a great time,” according to Ron. His good friend John Payne, president of the Malibu Navy League, set up the celebration. “It was a fantastic thing that people showed up. It was great.”
According to Ron, the celebration could not have honored a more worthy veteran or man.
“I wish there were more people in the world like my uncle. He’s so generous,” Ron said. “He would get up in the middle of the night to pick you up if you were broken down somewhere. That’s the kind of guy he is.”