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Remembering a FD war hero

Master Sgt. Robert Coffman was captured, killed by Chinese in Korea

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the May 2018 issue of Today magazine.

It is late November 1950 in Korea. The country is experiencing one of the coldest winters in 100 years, with temperatures reaching -30 degrees Fahrenheit.

U.N. forces advance along the Chongchon River Valley, but it’s hard going. The 8th U.S. Army is low on manpower, but has three times the firepower of the Chinese forces they are facing.

The Chinese Peoples Volunteer Army had pulled back, leaving the impression there were fewer Chinese than there were. The American forces push forward and are nearly caught in a trap.

A Turkish brigade has retreated, leaving the right flank of the 8th United States Army unprotected. The Chinese 13th Army launches a series of surprise attacks along the Chongchon River Valley, routing the U.S. forces, causing the 8th Army to retreat all the way back to South Korea.

Army Master Sgt. Robert M. Coffman is captured by Chinese forces and killed. It will be more than five years before his body returns to his hometown.

The early years

When Robert Coffman entered the world, the United States had been at war for eight months.

The headline of the Fort Dodge Messenger and Chronicle on the day he was born said “President Urges War on Austria; Says Peace Talk is Out of Question.”

On Dec. 4, 1917, Fort Dodge residents were urged to “Hooverize.” This was based on recommendations by Herbert Hoover to use food economically. The entire country was focused on helping U.S. soldiers win the war.

That war, known then as the Great War, or The War to End All Wars, ended Nov. 11, 1918. But it was not the last war to have an impact on Robert Coffman’s life.

He grew up in Fort Dodge. His father, Clarence Coffman, worked for Tremain and Rankin Auto Co. His mother, Myrtle May Brown, was a maid before marrying Clarence in 1916.

When Robert was born, the family lived in a rented home, but in 1920, his father bought a house in the 1900 block of Third Avenue South. They lived there until 1930 or 1931, when they moved to the 400 block of South 19th Street.

This is where Robert lived while attending Fort Dodge High School.

He was involved in sports during his high school years, as well as mixed chorus and boys glee club.

Robert’s main sport was track, but he also played football and basketball. In track, he earned a letter and state honors during his freshman year.

The 1933 yearbook says “Next is Bob Coffman, the star sprint man for the Dodgers. He was in the money consistently all year and climaxed the season by running a ten flat hundred in the District Meet. He was high-point man for the year.”

Although the yearbooks identify him as being in the class of 1936, the Fort Dodge Community School District does not have a record of him graduating.

He did, however, attend Western University in Kansas City, Kansas.

Western University was a historically black college. It began in 1862 as classes for the children of freed men, given by Eben Blachley in his home.

From that simple beginning, the college was expanded to a normal school — or teacher’s college — in 1872.

By the end of the century, the college included industrial courses and commercial business courses, and early in the 20th century, a music program was added.

Western University experienced financial problems during its history, and finally closed in 1943.

Robert Coffman would have attended between 1936 and 1941, however. The university was disbanded shortly after that and was eventually torn down.

Called to serve

Robert enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1941, before the U.S. entered World War II. He served in the 54th Coast Artillery, which was a segregated regiment. The 54th trained at Camp Davis, North Carolina, and was eventually sent to the San Francisco area to defend the western U.S. Coast.

Robert left the Army in January 1946. He reenlisted in February 1949.

He served in the 25th Infantry Division, 25th Infantry, Regiment HQ Co. 3rd Battalion, part of the Eighth U.S. Army, in the Korean War.

Master Sgt. Robert Marion Coffman was captured Nov. 30, 1950, during the Battle of the Chongchon River in Korea. He was listed as missing in action, then as a prisoner of war. His body was returned to Fort Dodge in 1956. He is buried in Washington Township Cemetery at Duncombe.

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