Henry Garret Kosters was born on September 24, 1932, on a farm southeast of Java, South Dakota. He graduated from high school in Harvey, Illinois, and soon received a draft notice for the United States Army. He decided to join the United States Navy and became a diesel engine mechanic. During the Korean War, he was assigned to the USS Gladiator, a mine sweeper that swept for mines along both coasts of the Korean peninsula. For his service aboard the USS Gladiator, he received two Battle Stars. Upon returning from Korea, he ended his service in the Navy. He became a mathematics and science teacher and eventually a senior level administrator for two local school districts.
Henry Kosters explains his decision to enlist with the US Navy after being drafted into the US Army. He describes his discussion with a Navy recruiter who explained that he could forego a four-year commitment with the Army and enlist with the Navy for two years instead. He recalls being assigned to the USS Gladiator (Mine Sweeper) and being transported to Korea.
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The Most Difficult Times: Sweeping for Mines
Henry Kosters shares that the process of sweeping for mines and removing one from a river were the most memorable and scariest time he experienced during the war. He describes the process of sweeping for three different types of mines: contact, magnetic, and a type of mine that sensed the vibration of passing ships. He recounts the process of finding the mines and bringing them to the surface of the water.
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Poverty and Survival
Henry Kosters describes his interaction with some South Korean children who took some of his possessions. He explains that upon landing at Inchon, the city was mostly occupied by US Marines. He recalls how he and another man went off together and came upon a group of teenagers who stole his watch band and camera film from his pockets. He shares that though he was not pleased with his loss, he understood that the children were desperate and needed to take whatever they could.
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[Beginning of Recorded Material]
H: Henry Garret Kosters, H E N R Y G A R R E T K O S T E R S
I: Great. And when were you born, and where were you born?
H: I was born of the 24thof September of 1932, at a farm south and east of Java, South Dakota.
I: Great. And could you talk about your high school, and where you graduated?
H: Okay. I graduated, my, my folks lost their farm in, in the dirty ‘30’s, and I don’t know if you’re familiar with, with what that is in this country, but the crops failed, and the wind blew and this, and the land blew all over the countryside, and, so my folks lost their farm, and they then moved to Chicago because my
grandmother, maternal grandmother, had a brother that lived south of Chicago, and so we moved to the Chicago area, and my dad was simply trying to find enough to feed the three children that, that they had at that time. So, and, so I went to high school in Harvey, Illinois and graduated, and the year that I graduated, then my folks moved back to South Dakota, and my dad had purchased a small implement dealership,
farm implements, in Selby, South Dakota, and so I came back, and very shortly thereafter I received a draft notice, and I took an Army physical in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and then talked to the Navy, I had talked to the Navy recruiter earlier, and, and he said they won’t take you out of a four-year program to put you in a two-year program. If you want to go to
the Navy, just join the Navy. So that’s what I did. So then I took that physical in Fargo, North Dakota and went to Great Lakes and through the basic training, and then on to San Diego and took Engineman school, diesel mechanic, and then was assigned to the USS Gladiator which was the ship that, that I found.
They had already left for Korea, so I, I was chasing them across the country, across the ocean, and across the country so and had a chance to ride a troop train, both in the United States and in Japan because, I can’t remember just where we landed in Japan, but I had to take a troop train across Japan to get onto another ship to get out to Korea to catch my ship.
I: When was this?
H: This was in 1952, in the Fall, late Summer or Fall of 1952, and we, I was in Korea until about the same time a year later.
I: Great. So where did you land when you arrived in Korea?
H: In, in Sasebo.
I: And where were you stationed?
H: Well, I was stationed on the USS Gladiator,
which was a mine sweeper.
I: And what was your specialty?
H: I was a diesel mechanic.
H: And work in the engine rooms.
I: And what unit were you part of?
H: Well, the United States Navy. Really, we, we swept mines on both coasts of Korea. So, and, and Korea’s weather is much like ours. It can be mighty cold,
and it freezes up and, and to me that was interesting because the bulkheads were about ¼’ steel, and, of course, your bathrooms were above deck and were cold, and people would shower and you had water running in there, so you’d build up frost on the inside just like you do on the old refrigerators, if you’re familiar with those.
I: So where did
you go when you were in Korea? Do you remember any of the towns you went to?
H: Well, let’s see. I guess, two things that I do remember, on Christmas where they were going to give us an opportunity to get to church, and so I was going to go on a hospital ship. And so, let’s see, I’m trying to think. Seoul, was it Seoul? I know Inchon, Inchon the, the, the, the port there when the tide is out is, is a big mud flat if I remember right.
And, at any rate, we did get ashore at Seoul, but I never got to the hospital ship for mass. They had to get back to the ship and, and go. So that never worked out. But we did sweep mines on both coasts of, of Korea. And then, another place that I remember is Chinanpo. That’s a river somewhere there, but I know we were sweeping out the river mouth
and star shells came up and it was like daylight out there. And so we started pulling in our sweep gear so that we could turn around and get out, and about that time we had a British cruiser that was running shotgun for us, and, so they came in. They put lights on us hoping they would fire on us so that they could fire on the shore batteries, and, of course I wasn’t enthusiastic about that. But,
but I found out that the, what I’ll call the Old Salts, the people that have been in the Navy for a long time were just as scared as I was, but.
I: So did you know where you were when all this was happening? Did you know where Korea was before you had come over?
H: Really I didn’t know much about Korea, no. I didn’t know anything about Korea. I just, of course there were a lot of young men that were going to Korea with, with the war effort, and
so this was the late Summer, fall of 1952, and there had been a lot of, a lot of action in Korea, action and reaction.
I: Did many of your comrades know Korea as well, or were you all?
H: I think all of us were in the same state of ignorance, and, and maybe that’s bliss. Maybe that was good for us.
We were learning as we go.
I: So what was your impression?
H: Of, of Korea?
I: Of Korea.
H: Well, I, that it was cold. I mean in, in
I: But you’re from South Dakota.
H: Yeah, and, and it’s, so they, that wasn’t a shock, and, and I was pleased that I had a place that I could go to warm up because when, being on a small ship like that, we would pick up forward observers from little islands off the coast,
and they would come aboard the ship and shower and get a hot meal, and I really felt bad for those young Marines that were on those little rock islands that could not find a warm place. I could, I was in an engine room where the engines generated a lot of heat. So, so I could get warm. But I, I thought they would have some difficulty finding a warm spot, but
I: Were you ever attacked during your time?
H: No. The only, the only time was the star shells. Well, we picked, the only mine that I’m sure that we found was one that we pulled up on our anchor, and, and a couple of people got some medals for that, an old Officer, Warrant Officer and, and a dumb kid like myself who was running the anchor windless, and, and he lowered it away, and, and so we
escaped through that because I saw that there was a mine, or at least the contacts for the mine, that cleared the water when the anchor broke through the surface. But
I: So were you able to send letters home about what you were doing?
H: Oh yeah. Well I could send letters home, but I didn’t really talk much about what we were doing because I’m not sure that, that my folks had any idea what ships did when they were sweeping for mines.
I: So what did you say to them?
H: What did I say?
I: So what did you say instead?
H: Oh. Just, just to let them know that I was okay because I knew that, you know, mothers worry about their kids and I, I’m sure dads do, too. I know mine, that I worry about my kids so. But, you always think of your mother as the one that does the majority of the worrying. So.
I: So you said you were sweeping mines for one year.
H: A, about a year, yeah.
- I, I don’t remember the exact dates when we got there and when we came back.But, it was about a year. And you’d go out for about 30 days and then come in to Japan and, and reoutfit and then go out for another 30 days and, and we’d go to both coasts.
I: What was it like traveling to both of them and having to do your job there?
H: Well that, that, that was alright except that the ships, ship that I was on was not
equipped for cold country. And so we had, for example, potato bins on the outside of the ship. Okay, fill them up with potatoes, go there and then the potatoes freeze and they’re spoiled, you know. So that, that wasn’t very smart. So we had to learn that, you know, but
I: So what was your worst or most dangerous experience or something that remains with you as a very difficult time during your service?
H: I think the most difficult were the, was pulling up the mine and, and sweeping out that river mouth. The river mouth, to me, was the scariest because we, I thought we were in imminent danger, and, and I did receive two battle stars, but I don’t know where both of the battles were. I think one was in the river mouth, at Chinanpo, but the other one I’m not really sure. They just said you got a battle star.
The, the motto of this mine sweeper was where the fleet goes, we’ve been. So you would get a battle star if a battle occurred where you’d swept, but we were always out sweeping. And so you never knew because you were kind of the advanced party checking out things, and I’m sure sometimes we were a diversion.
I: So what was the process of learning how to sweep a mine?
I’m sure that when you first entered, you weren’t familiar with
H: Oh, well you, there it was, you had people who knew the ship well, your, your superiors if you would, and, and what you did was while you swept for three different kinds of mines, for contact mines and for magnetic mines and for mines that would go off by vibration of the propellers of the ship. And so you had three different
sets of gear that you would use. For the most part, we used what they called kites and swept for contact mines because those were the most, most used mines. And what you’d do is send out floats with cables so that they’d be out behind the ship like this, and as the ship was moving that direction, and then you’d have what they called kites to pull the, the
stuff down so that you would hook the cables and then the mine contact was, would slide along the cable and then it would fire, I think it was a 20 caliber type shell would fire and a cutter would cut the cable, and then the mines would float because they were anchored down. So that was the whole idea. You’d cut, cut the cable that anchored the mine down, then the mines would pop up. The next day, another ship would come by and just
fire at the mines and shoot them, and they would explode. So we never exploded the mines, but you could tell. The gauges were called dynamometers, and you could tell that you hooked something that you were dragging something so that the tension would go up, and then that would fire, and they’d pop up and, but we never knew how many mines you really, really cut. You just, we’d go through an area and
sweep it, and, and so we’d sweep at night and then go back and anchor by day.
I: And whose mines were these mostly, Chinese or North Korean?
H: I, I have no idea. I have no idea. I suspect they were both because the Chinese and the North Koreans were working together, and, and so. But I, I have no idea.
I: And did you ever witness any civilians or any like people being affected by these mines?
I: Did you ever witness that, no?
H: No, no. They had, the only time I really came in contact with any of the, the South Koreans really was when we went ashore at Inchon thinking we were going to be able to get to mass, and there, for the most part it was occupied by Marines, and they’re we were foolish. Two of us went off together and we shouldn’t have. And there were a bunch of teenage kids that materialized out of nowhere
and, and so they, and I ‘m sure the kids were hungry. They wanted whatever they could get. So they were, I had my camera with one hand and I wore, I usually wore my watch like this at that time, and I hung onto the watch. They got the watchband, and they got a bunch of film out of my pockets. But the Marines, a couple Marines came along in a Jeep, and the kids ran off, and so that was my, that was my contact.
I: What did you think about these, these kids who were taking
stuff from you while you were trying to protect?
H: Well, I realized they don’t have, they didn’t have anything and, you know, and I think they were just trying to survive. But was I happy about it? No, no because I don’t know what would have happened if those Marines hadn’t come along. But I
I: So what else did you do before you left Korea, anything that sticks out in memory?
H: No. No, essentially we would go back, Japan,
I spent more, much more time in Japan because I could get ashore more in Japan. In Korea, we were always anchored off, and most of the time off of North Korea. So we, we’d anchor off of the, off of North Korea and then we’d travel to wherever we were going to sweep in the evening, and sweep mines at night.
I: Wow. And what did you do when you were in Japan?
H: We would reoutfit, they’d reload the ship
provisions. And, and you had to get, the ship that I was on was, was small, so you had to get your personal provisions, too. If you wanted toothpaste or cigarettes or personal items, you could pick them up from the ship’s store because we didn’t have a ship store on our, the small ship.
I: Um hm. So you said you left Korea about a year after. Do you recall the, a date?
H: No. I, I really don’t.
I: So where did you go after you
H: I came back to, I think Long Beach, and then the ship went up into the shipyards in, in Washington, and then I traded duty with the guy who was from California who wanted to stay in California because their ship was going to the East coast. So I swapped duty and had a chance to go around through the Panama Canal and go to the East coast.
And we went to Mine Counter Measures station in Panama City, Florida, and what they did there was test new equipment that General Electric and other companies were putting together to combat mine warfare. So that was, that was kind of interesting because they, there were some of them they could control little torpedoes that would go out and they’d blow up the mines
and, you know, stuff like that. So it was kind of fun. That, that was, that was the enjoyable kind of duty.
I: Do you wish you had that when you were over in Korea?
H: Well, you know, I, I, I was a dumb kid, you know. I admit that’s, and, and so I, I, I was, I
was pleased to be where I was.
I: So when you left Korea, had you any hope for its’ future, or what did you think when you were leaving it?
H: Well, I did a lot of growing up. I went over as a dumb kid, and I had some, I knew, for example, that, that I really didn’t want to die, you know. That, and I guess that realization hadn’t sunk in before that because kids think they’re immortal when they’re young, and, and we’re not immortal. We were all mortals, and we’re were going to,
there’s a beginning and an end to life, and so I, and, and I think it, I matured to the point where I knew that I wanted to get out of the Navy, get back home, and find a nice girl and marry her. And, and I was fortunate. I did just that.
I: So after your time in Korea, what do you think was the impact of your service on your own life.
H: Well, I, it,
when I got home, my idea was that I was going to pitch in and help my dad make a success of his farm implement business. And the farm implement business, small ones, like small farms in South Dakota, were just going out of business. They couldn’t cope with the large farms, the large businesses and, of course, the, the industries were
restructuring. So the businesses, or the items that he was selling, they were beginning to take away the dealerships because they wanted bigger dealerships, and I, and I recognized that. So wanting to get married, I had the opportunity because I had the GI bill to go to college. So I did that. And, and so that was my way out, to go to college and, and
H: So, so I did,
H: and, and that, and I had some success in, in college and, and I had no idea that I could
master college, you know, when I got out, out of the Navy. I, I just didn’t know I guess because that was the last thing[inaudible] When I graduated from high school, I gave my mother the diploma and I told her if I ever go back to school, mom, it’s gonna be to a PTA meeting, not realizing that I’d spend my life as a teacher and a school administrator.
I: Oh. What do you teach?
H: Math and Science were my majors but,
H: But most, for the most part I got into School Administration and worked in the State Dept. of, of Education, and, and I became State Superintendent in South Dakota at one point. And then I worked for the, I left the State Dept. and I worked for Associated School Boards, and School Reorganization was
a big item at that point in time. And so I worked for schools on school reorganization.
I: Now the 11thlargest economy in the world, and that we’re also a model for democratization in Asia.
H: Well I, I, I knew some of that, that they were 11th, no I didn’t know that for sure. But, you know, I have, one of my daughter drives a Kia which is made in Korea.
I: Yeah. How does it make you feel that the country
that you saw back when you were there in 1952
H: Well, I, I think of the contrast between South Korea and North Korea and how, you know, the same people essentially are living in totally different worlds in my end, you know. I haven’t been back to see, but I, but I envision that what was rubble maybe that I saw
at one point in time is, is now a thriving, prosperous city, you know. That’s
I: How does it make you feel about your service that South Korea has transformed this way?
H: Well, I, I think that’s great. I, but I do feel bad for the North Korean people, not for the leaders, but the people because the leadership there just is, to me, keeping their thumb on the people and depriving them of quality of life. But
I: Would you like to see them reunified, North and South?
H: I, I think it would be good if they could be, but I, I don’t know how that would work. It worked well in Germany, but would it work in Korea, the North and South? I don’t know because if people have not experienced life under a free society,
it’s difficult to adjust to that, or at least that, that’s my observation with some of the Arabic countries now, that, you know, they, they were used to being under a ruler who made all the decisions for them, and it’s a whole different world when you make your own decisions. And a, a much more beautiful world in my judgement. But by that same token, the number of people who
can experience what you did in South Korea in the world seems to be diminishing rather than increasing, and it should be the opposite logically in my head. But that, that isn’t happening.
I: So are you proud of your service in Korea?
H: Oh yeah, I, I, I’m proud of the fact that I served my country and, and did what I could, yeah.
I: Would you go again if you had to?
H: Well if, if I had to, but I, I’m not in a condition to do what I used to be able to do, you know. I, I’m gonna be 84 years old in, in a short while here, and what I tell people I said I’m gonna celebrate the 45thanniversary of my 39thbirthday. So, but I, I, I can’t do what I did then, you know. I was agile and, and strong and anymore it takes me a while to get up.
I: What do you think came out of your service in Korea?
H: Oh I, I think that my quality of life was enhanced substantially because I matured. I, I, I grew up and put things in a much better perspective. I went in as a dumb kid, and, and I, not that I was so smart when I came out, but at least I had, I had grown in so many ways, matured
and, and you see, you deal with different people, and some of them were well educated and were very foolish in my judgement, and some of them were well educated and did extremely well, and I, I didn’t want to be among the foolish let’s put it that way. So.
I: So it’s interesting you say that your experience in a war helped you grow
where some veterans would say that it traumatized them or it made them less optimistic about life. How, how did you find something good out of your, your service?
H: Well, I, I guess you, my, my upbringing helped to do that because I think that optimism was a part of my, my parents’ life. If not,
they’d have thrown in the towel as a very young couple because everything seemed to go against them. Nothing, nothing went right. Their, their farm that they lost. They had four children, and three boys and a girl, and the only time I saw my father cry was when my sister died, and, and she and I were both very ill, and, and she passes away, and it, and for me, I wondered why was I spared and she was
taken. Why? I, I don’t know, you know. I, I could, didn’t make that decision. My parents didn’t. The Lord did. And, and so I think faith had something to do with all of that, my, my beliefs, that’s
I: Did you bring a Bible with you when you were in Korea?
H: I did not have a Bible with me, but I had, I had a rosary. I’m, I happen to be Catholic, and so my
ten fingers were my rosary, and I said a lot of rosaries. I still say a lot of rosaries. And
I: What do you think the legacy of your service and of the Korean War is?
H: And it bothers me that in so many ways it’s kind of a forgotten war. Since I’ve retired, I, I can watch the,
it’s not the Military channel anymore, but there’s a lot of World War II, and there’s a lot of Vietnam. There, there isn’t much about Korea.
I: Why do you think that is?
H: I, I’m not certain. Even in some, there, there’s a country western song that, that talks about, it’s a very patriotic song. But they skip right over the Korean War, and that bothers me. But it shouldn’t.
I: Oh no, it should. It should. Definitely under taught and under recognized.
H: Yeah. It, It just, just bothers me that it’s kind of forgotten, and of course the Vietnam veterans came back, and they were snubbed. But when we got back, supposedly we were going to have Rita Moreno who was a movie star, meet us, meet the ship when we got back. That didn’t happen. It was, now we had people meet us,
but they were the family members of those who were married, and could make it. And so there, there was kind of a, the beginning of the snubbing that occurred, I’ll call it snubbing, I, I don’t know what you want to categorize it as, but it, it occurred for the Vietnam veterans, and that was kind of sad. I think there was a change in attitude from World War II
to the Korean War. That change of attitude happened, and people really didn’t recognize it that much for the Korean veterans but very much so for the Vietnam veterans. But that’s my opinion, and opinions are like noses. Everybody has one or two, or three.
I: So is there any last message that you want to leave with us about your service and about the Korean War and its lasting effects?
H: No, I, I’m just, for me it turned out to be a good experience because, because of the change it had in how I viewed life and the way I wanted to live my life. So.
H: So that’s, that’s it. And I, I, I don’t know, I, put together some stuff here. Whether you want it or not, it’s up to you.
H: I’ll, I’ll, I’ll just leave this with you.
I: Okay. Definitely. So, thank you so much for being here. It was a pleasure talking to you, and thank you so much for your service to Korea.
H: Thank you. And I, and I thank, thank Korea for, that medal was wonderful. It really was. It’s a thing of beauty, and I display it at my house, and I sat next to, here in [inaudible] sat next to
a friend who has since passed away. But, but it was neat that he was able to receive that as well, and there were so many of us who did.
H: Thank you.
[End of Recorded Material]