French Legion of Honor medal awarded to Malibu resident

World War II veteran Martin Copenhafer (front center) celebrates with family and friends (left to right) Anne Payne, Robert Johnson, Anne Salenger, Julie Duhaut-Bedos, John Payne, and Heidi Bernard after receiving the Legion of Honor medal on Sunday, July 10. Photo by Julie Ellerton.

A remarkable local gentleman has just received the country of France’s highest and most prestigious award. The Legion of Honor medal was bestowed to 50-year Malibu resident Martin Copenhafer, who at age 101 may be the country’s oldest honoree. The Legion of Honor is one of France’s oldest distinctions as well, created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802.

The ceremony honoring Copenhafer took place at Serra Retreat July 10 under crystalline skies with French and American flags adorning the road up to the center’s courtyard in appreciation of the French government’s recognition of the World War II hero. The consul general of France in Los Angeles, Julie Duhaut-Bedos, spoke of her country’s honor to Copenhafer for his service to France. 

“To confer such a medal to an individual is a solemn occasion,” Duhaut-Bedos explained to the family, friends, military and government officials in attendance. “This medal is of high importance to France. It’s a way to express beyond words, gratitude of my country.” 

The Legion of Honor can be conferred upon men and women, either French or foreign nationals, for outstanding achievements in military or civilian life. 

Copenhafer’s military career in WWII was exceptional. He enlisted in the Navy in 1942 and became a quartermaster for an LST (landing ship tank) that ferries equipment and troops to fronts. His vessel was bombed near Sicily, caught fire and sank, but Copenhafer managed to swim to safety and eventually to another mission — D-Day in 1944. That heroic mission in Normandy, the largest seaborne invasion in history, turned the tide in the Allied victory against Hitler’s occupation of France. Copenhafer said he witnessed Winston Churchill himself give his famous victory sign to the fleet on the way to the daring invasion. 

A second campaign involved support of the landing of troops in Provence. Copenhafer’s LSTs also served as floating hospitals and mortuaries. After the European campaigns, Copenhafer was transitioned to the Pacific Theater and completed his service in 1945.

Navy Capt. Christopher Hulitt, who was in attendance, was astounded by Copenhafer’s duties as chief quartermaster of an LST reminding those at the ceremony of how crudely built the ships were in that era. 

“Copenhafer was responsible for navigation and running the bridge, the nerve center of the ship, guiding it safely and effectively. The LST is not the most advanced on a good day; nine knots,” Hulitt said as members of Malibu’s Navy League chuckled at the description of the lumbering old ships. 

“It’s moving soldiers and Marines into harm’s way. Navigating at slow and vulnerable speeds through the most dangerous defenses that a willing and highly aggressive enemy is going to throw in front of the ship is a significant challenge,” Hulitt continued. “When you see the artillery positions, machine gun placement, mines, and anti-tank measures in place he had to navigate his ship through on that day to liberate Europe from Nazi tyranny, it is incredibly impressive. Chief petty officers are the backbone of the U.S. Navy. They are senior enlisted leaders who forge our sailors into teams. Chief Copenhafer was part of that selective group.”

Hulitt saluted Copenhafer’s mission as “trial by fire” as he, the ship and crew had never been out to sea before.

“That is unbelievable. That would not happen in the Navy today. He led his team with effectively no training which is incredible,” Hulitt said. “We stand on the shoulder of giants like Copenhafer, a humble giant. We are inspired by men like you who have gone before, answered the call to ring the bells of freedom, liberty and justice. Thank you.”

The Legion of Honor Medal will join Copenhafer’s other significant decorations, including the European/African/Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three battle stars, the Asiatic Campaign Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, and the American Campaign Medal.

“France has not forgotten these American young men who demonstrated their selflessness, generosity and unwavering bravery and courage while under fire by enemy,” Duhaut-Bedos said. “They became our liberators; no longer merely men, but heroes and a symbol of our common values. 

“We owe you our freedom. We are truly grateful for your duty, courage and self-sacrifice. I would like to express our gratitude. Merci,” the Consul General proclaimed as she then pinned the prestigious medal on the honoree. 

“He is a great friend of France,” Duhaut-Bedos said. “His actions on the battlefield are an undeniable testament to this”

The ceremony was arranged by the Malibu Navy League.