Sitting down for a conversation with WWII decorated war veteran Joe Kovar quickly becomes a lesson in world history. Kovar, a 1943 graduate of Anoka High School, joined the Army shortly after graduation and traveled to Georgia to receive infantry basic training. He was then sent to Boston College as part of the Army Specialized Training Program to be trained as an engineer, but this assignment was cut short when the Germans broke through in North Africa, and it looked as though they would move into Egypt. “They called up any troops in the United States that had infantry basic training. We were all shipped to New York…but there was a big breakthrough and we didn’t have to go. They stopped them at a place called El Alamein; it was a big battle,” Kovar says.
Kovar was then sent to South Carolina to train with the 26th infantry division, the Yankee division, to prepare for deployment overseas. He and approximately eight of his fellow infantrymen joined an existing division made up of the National Guard of Massachusetts, a group of older guys who were less than thrilled to see the new recruits arrive. “They looked down their noses at us. We were treated like dirt,” Kovar says. But this was soon to change.
One day, the older men set up a boxing ring in the center of the training field, complete with ropes and a guy with a pail and hammer to serve as a gong. Every one of the new kids had to spend one minute in the ring with one of the sergeants, who was a semi-pro boxer from Brooklyn. “I can still remember him,” says Kovar. “He took every one of those kids and beat the heck out of them.” When Kovar’s turn came, he declined the challenge, which was met with a string of name-calling, including every variation of the word ‘‘yellow.’’
Finally, Kovar relented and donned the gloves. “Bennie was going to really show this smart aleck kid. He threw a haymaker at me. I ducked and put one in his belly, and hit him five or six more good ones to put him through the ropes, into the hands of his buddies. See, what I forgot to tell him was in ’39 and ’40, we had Golden Glove boxing in Minnesota, and I was a two-time champion,” Kovar says. “After that, they put their arm around my shoulder, ‘C’mon Kovar, let’s go to the PX together, buddy’. Oh, how it changed things.” Kovar still marvels at how that one act made a big difference. When they finally went into combat, they were a solid unit.
(Left: A remake of his old boxing champtionship belt. The original was lost in a fire, among many other items; Right: a picture of Joe from the war.)
When the division set foot on the beach in France, Kovar admits there were things training could not prepare soldiers for. “We weren’t scared until we got the first shelling. You can’t describe it. It is so horrifying and you feel like you’re going to die any minute. There is shrapnel flying and people hollering and screaming. You can’t believe the horror in the air. You toughen up pretty fast,” Kovar says.
The company was ill-prepared for the impending winter, having been moved north at a moment’s notice with news of the Battle of the Bulge and Hitler breaking through. Without time to issue heavy equipment, the soldiers only had summer socks, no gloves or earmuffs. Heavy snow and frigid temperatures froze their feet, fingers, ears, and weapons, requiring constant dismantling and reassembly. It took two weeks for the conditions to improve.
“It was miserable. We had no hot food, we had to be outside. We were scared, hungry, and angry, and when you’re mad, you do things. We kept going because we knew we had to get Hitler. Either that or be killed,” Kovar says. Their unit was headed through the woods when the Germans shelled the group. Fifty-seven men in his company were killed in a single afternoon, the day Kovar lost his hearing in one ear.
Kovar was one of only two from the original company who sailed out on Christmas Eve 1945, landing in Virginia Beach on New Year’s Eve. Setting foot on American soil was emotional. “The old proverbial ‘kissing the ground’ happened. You can’t believe the feeling. I still get it when I see the flag. I’m indebted to the flag,” Kovar says.
(Left: a few of the many medals awarded to Joe; Right: The French Legion of honor, France’s highest medal awarded to U. S. veterans who fought in France during WWII.)
At the tender age of 21, Kovar had experiences far beyond his years. His wife of 67 years, Agnes Kovar, or “Sis” as she’s known, says Kovar didn’t talk of his experiences until about 10 years ago. “When I met Joe, there was nothing ever mentioned about the war. He wanted to be happy and have the life he missed at that young age. He wanted to get married and have a family,” Sis says. The couple met at Oak Ridge Resort, owned by Sis’ father, where Kovar played saxophone in the band. Sis was attending school in Wisconsin and showed up one Sunday afternoon during rehearsal. “God had to maneuver us for us to get together,” Sis says. “I had been praying for a husband since I was little, and God brought him home to me.” They married in 1948 and have four children, 12 grandchildren, and 15 great-grandchildren.
Kovar believes there was a reason his life was spared. Since retiring, he has taken to public speaking as a way to share his experience with others, especially youth captivated by his stories. “Joe spoke to an assembly of 500 kids, and no one moved, no one talked. They were glued to his message. They got a real history lesson,” Sis says. He donates speaking stipends to the Military Order of Purple Heart (MOPH), Chapter 8, the only military organization authorized by Congress, and Kovar also directly supports veterans’ homes in Hastings and Minneapolis by shopping for and hand delivering requested supplies.
“Every cent I receive for speaking is for these programs,” Kovar says. My message is, ‘Be thankful for what you have, for freedom is not free.’”
To schedule a speaking engagement, contact Joe at [email protected].
Sis Kovar (pictured above with Joe) is a member of Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Military Order of the Purple Heart (LAMOPH).
The group supports one another, our veterans and their families. They share compassion with families of the combat wounded, and volunteer on behalf of all veterans.
Their mission is to light the path veterans come home to by being there for them, always remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice, caring for their families and revering the sacrifices made to preserve the freedoms we so enjoy as Americans.