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Found documents reveal history of local World War I veteran who lived in Bakersfield

A Marine throws a grenade during the fight for Betio Island in Nov. 1943. (DVIDS)

It was an unusual message, even for a journalist who receives more than his share of unusual messages.

Bernt Erik Nilsen, a retiree and stamp collector in San Diego, was calling to say he had purchased an old envelope at an auction held by a group of stamp collectors.

He paid just $5 for the envelope to add to his stamp collection. But when he took possession he realized the envelope was addressed to a David L. Kofahl, at 2130 Cedar St. in Bakersfield.

That was intriguing enough, but it got better.

The envelope was stuffed with official documents from the U.S. Army, dated more than 100 years ago — all related to Kofahl’s experience in the military and his service during World War I, the war that was supposed “to end all wars.”

“David Kofahl must have been a pretty good soldier,” said Nilsen, who immigrated to the United States from Norway decades ago and still speaks with a distinctive accent.

“He enlisted Nov. 24, 1917,” Nilsen said of Kofahl, “became a sergeant on Aug. 17, 1918, and a sergeant first class on May 19, 1919,” he said.

“I see that he was a machinist by trade, and 29 years old when he enlisted, which would probably have made him a very valuable asset to the Army Air Corps.”

Nilsen went to the trouble of reaching out to this reporter, because he felt if there was a chance descendants of the long-dead soldier could be found, the documents should eventually be placed in their hands.

Nilsen mailed the papers to The Californian, and the search began.

“Please let me know if you have any success in getting anyone in the family interested,” he said.

Thanks to social media it wasn’t difficult to track down a descendent of David L. Kofahl.

His name is David F. Kofahl. He’s an architect in Los Angeles, and he is definitely interested.

“This is truly wonderful to hear about these documents and that you are interested in making a story of it,” the younger Kofahl said in a text.

“You are correct that my grandfather was David Livingston Kofahl, that he served in World War I, and lived on Cedar Street with his wife, Gladys McCray Kofahl,” he said.

“Their son was David Clinton Kofahl, my father, who went to BHS and then Stanford University. I’m David Frank Kofahl.”

He learned that his grandfather’s discharge papers are particularly illuminating, dealing with his promotion in rank and much more.

The war veteran’s honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, most of it handwritten, shows he was born in Sherrill, Mo., had dark-brown eyes, light-brown hair, a “ruddy” complexion and stood 5 feet, 8 inches.

It documents his participation in the St. Mihiel Offensive in France, Sept. 12 to 16, 1918, followed immediately by the Meuse Argonne Offensive, also in France, Sept. 16 to Nov. 11, 1918.

It’s amazing to consider that the last day of that battle was the final day of the war — and that Armistice Day, Nov. 11, would continue to be commemorated. It was renamed Veterans Day in 1954.

Kofahl’s service record says he was “entitled to wear one gold chevron,” signifying that the wearer had served in the “Zone of Advance” in France during the Great War.

Fortunately, David L. Kofahl came home without physical wounds from the war.

“The McCray family,” David F. said of his grandmother’s lineage, “homesteaded the land where Lake Isabella now exists, another great piece of Kern County history.

“My aunt Betty Ellen Kofahl Morgan kept files of photos and docs of family history from before 1900 to after 2000.”

David L. Kofahl, war veteran, machinist and family man, owned and operated Kofahl’s Richfield Service at 17th and F streets for 35 years, his grandson said.

He retired in 1962.

Now, all these years later, the century-old papers, documents that this young man, this soldier of the Great War, once held in his hands, are being returned to the family that still loves him and is proud of him.

It was worth the effort.


(c) 2023 The Bakersfield Californian

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