Korean War Oral History interview
Veteran: Randall Cofski
24th Engineer Construction Group, US 8th Army
Date: January 12, 2004
Interviewer: Michelle Carrara
Summarizer: Alex Frey
Prior to entering the military, Randall Cofski lived in Brooklyn, New York and worked as a truckdriver. When Cofski was drafted during the Korean War in 1952, he was unable to choose his branch of the service and ended up in the army. He received basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and recalls that as being the most difficult part of his service. Cofski was then transferred to Fort Hood, Texas for advanced individual training as an army engineer. His cousin was drafted at the same time as he was, but they were sent to different locations for training, and the cousin remained stateside working on bridges.
Cofski recalled that he enjoyed engineer training, where he became a combat engineer bridge construction specialist, and that his prior civilian experience working with heavy equipment proved a great asset during training. He also picked up another military occupational specialty by attending an army cooking school while at Fort Hood. He stated that he was ordered to take the course in lieu of a court-martial for an automobile accident he was involved in. In early 1953 Cofski learned that he would be sent to Korea, and he informed his wife while he was home on leave.
After waiting for three days in California, Cofski boarded a troop transport ship for the Far East. The ship stopped in Japan, but only Marines were permitted to leave the vessel. Cofski recalled that conditions on the troopship were cramped and unsanitary during the twenty-three day voyage. He felt apprehensive as he landed at Inchon, Korea, and he remembered hearing artillery firing in the distance.
Cofski was assigned to the 24th Engineer Construction Group, an army engineer unit that was, when he arrived, working with the Marines, and subsequently was given the task of building bridges as a primary assignment. The type of projects allotted to the Group’s engineers always involved construction, and, in addition to bridges, they worked on fortifications and airfields, and on several occasions built artillery positions and bunkers on the sides of mountains. He recalled that the 24th was occasionally bombed by enemy night air raids, and that he also frequently saw North Korean and Chinese prisoners of war while working on a prison construction detail. He noted that the prisoners were treated well, which discouraged them from trying to escape.
Cofski recalled that, on one assignment, he became stuck in mud up to his chest, and that his first experience of hearing enemy fire at night scared him, but that by the end of his first month in Korea he had grown accustomed to it. The 24th was assigned to the US 8th Army, not to a particular division, and so was attached to different divisions at different times and deployed wherever needed during his tour of duty in Korea. As a result, Cofski travelled and worked all over the country, including in major cities like Pusan and Seoul.
Korea’s harsh weather stood out in Cofski’s memory, and he recalled temperatures dropping to 28 degrees below zero Farenheit, cold enough to crack rubber truck tires. He equated the winter conditions in Korea to those of upstate New York, while also noting the lack of proper winter equipment issued to his unit. C-rations were the primary source of food for the unit throughout Cofski’s tour in Korea. On special occasions the food was better, and he specifically recalled working as a cook preparing a Thanksgiving dinner for officers -- the cranberries were spoiled, however.
When working as a cook, Cofski was assisted by three Koreans – two soldiers and one laborer. He noted that South Korean army officers treated their soldiers poorly, to the point of occasional physical abuse. He mentioned that the Koreans were treated better when they worked under American command. He also recalled that some Korean civilians sold puppies for food.
Cofski remembered that he and other American military personnel received adequate health care; the dentist who served Cofski’s unit was in fact a Commander in the Navy. Medical facilities at the University of Seoul were used by the US military, in addition to Mobile Army Service Hospital (MASH) units.
Recreation for the soldiers of the 24th consisted mostly of “playing cards and writing letters home,” due to the cold weather. Cofski never saw a USO show while in Korea. He received a good deal of mail from home during his tour, especially from his father, and the mail was not, as it was in World War II, censored. He recalled that his unit’s morale was rather high. Many of the 24th men were older than the average soldier, because combat engineers were selected from draftees and volunteers with civilian experience, that dovetailed with the jobs assigned to military engineers. He noted that several of the men he served with were veterans who had remained in the service after World War II.
The point system employed during the Korean War ensured that soldiers saw, on average, less combat time than in previous wars. Cofski himself spent about nine months in Korea before returning to the United States a few days prior to his discharge. He noted that the Korean War never formally ended following the ceasefire in 1953, and he has continued to maintain an interest in current events surrounding Korean affairs.
On his return trip home, Cofski was once again crammed into a troopship. He commented that the voyage back to the United States was “totally horrible”. Upon landing in San Francisco, he was assigned to a barracks with other soldiers whose homes were on the East Coast to await transport, since there were too many men to fit on a flight to New Jersey, where they were to be mustered out at Camp Kilmer in Edison. That night he watched a USO show, and at 2 a.m. he and the other East Coast soldiers were transported to a train station to begin a long cross-country rail trip. It was February, and the trip was even longer than usual, as the train was snowed in for a day in Buffalo.
Cofski’s return home was a surprise to his wife, who was not expecting him. Once out of the service he used his experience in the Army engineers to work various jobs with the civil service and in the trucking industry. Cofski stated that he would like to return to Korea for a visit as other veterans have should the opportunity arise. He has not attended any unit reunions, although he was a member of the VFW. He has visited schools to discuss the Korean War, the “Forgotten War,” with students, in the belief that children should be familiar with the history of the nation’s wars and the sacrifices its soldiers made, although he resists telling sensationalist “war stories.” Cofski believes that wars should not be forgotten, so that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.
At the end of his interview, Randall Cofski showed the interviewer pictures of himself during his time in service. He was awarded the UN Medal, the Korean Service Medal, the National Defense Medal, the Korean government’s war medal and the Good Conduct Medal during his service.