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Interview with Leonard John Kovar [11/13/2003]

Coy Cross:

How were you able to save your uniform you are wearing and other personal effects after you became a prisoner-of-war?

Leonard John Kovar:

Bill Descello[spelling] and I were buddies and had been together for most of the year. We were both bombardiers/navigators. When we got over to Beri[spelling] we were separated. I went to one squadron and he went to another, but we kept track of each other. When a crewmember went down, his belongings back at the base would often get stolen within a few hours by the local people. Most guys came back with nothing at all. They were lucky to bring their dogtags back with them. In my case, my buddy Bill knew that I went down. So he went to my tent, which I had shared with three other guys, and took my footlocker, boxed it up, and sent it home to my parents. In that box was my dress uniform, my diary [which I still have], and a bunch of oddball things. He also wrote a beautiful letter to my parents. The letter said, "Dear Folks, wonderful news ten chutes got out of that airplane." My mother copied it and sent copies to the families of the nine other crewmembers. They wrote letters back and she responded. She became the unofficial secretary for the group and kept all the correspondence. I have a box full of the correspondence from the families. Many times I have thought of throwing it away and have gotten as far as the ashcan, then decided to keep it a little longer. I still have it. I have a whole box of letters written back and forth between the families regarding their POW sons, which I would be glad to give to you, if you wish.

Coy Cross:

I would like that. We will include those letters as part of our package to the Library of Congress.

Leonard John Kovar:

There are a few letters missing. There are three of us still around and I have taken out the letters pertaining to them and sent those to them. But I have all the others. So I was able to keep all of my stuff. Another thing, when the war was over, I was on the first boat, as I understand it, of prisoners to come to the United States. I was aboard either the Santa Lucia or the Santa Maria, I have forgotten which, we were about three days out when the war officially ended. Then I was home for two weeks while the war in the Pacific continued. A reporter came to the house a couple of hours after I got home, so they had a newspaper account of my return. For the next two weeks my mother would ask my questions, but my mood was such that I didn’t want to bother. I thought, "She wouldn’t understand anyway." But I would answer her questions. She persisted with her questions and unbeknownst to me, every time I would tell her something she would run into the other room and write it down. I was home for two weeks and then went to Florida to be reassigned to go to the Pacific, because the war was going on. She was taking a course in short-story writing from the University of Minnesota. So as soon as I left, she sat down and wrote my story, as she interpreted it. I have her original copy here. She called it "I was there." She got about 75 percent of the story and did it pretty well. So I have quite a few records that most people do not.

Coy Cross:

You mentioned Minnesota, where were you born and where did you grow up?

Leonard John Kovar:

I was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, [birth date redacted]. I went to high school there, then the war came. I was eager to get in, as most of the guys were that I kicked around with. Everybody got in. Out of our group of sixteen, two were killed, one wounded, one a POW, and one was three days adrift in a life-raft.

Coy Cross:

Do you remember what you were doing on December 7, 1941?

Leonard John Kovar:

I don’t.

Coy Cross:

It sounds like you enlisted.

Leonard John Kovar:

Yes.

Coy Cross:

Where did you go for basic training?

Leonard John Kovar:

I went to San Antonio for basic training and from there to Randolph Field. I was in the class of 42-J originally, but I got washed back with a broken eardrum. I then went to Harlingen, Texas for pilot training, but washed out. I then did my bombardier training, but I don’t remember where. Part of it was in Salt Lake City. We gathered our crew there and then went overseas.

Coy Cross:

You went to basic training, then volunteered for flight school to become a pilot?

Leonard John Kovar:

My dream was to become a pilot. I was in pilot training and I was the last man in my class to washout. I understand they washed-out 76 percent of the class. The next class they only washed-out about 6 percent . It kind of depended on what the needs were overseas at the time. I was heartsick at the time. But looking back, I would say that was a real blessing. I probably wouldn’t have survived the war. I would have been over there a lot earlier.

Coy Cross:

Your crew assembled in Salt Lake and then you shipped overseas?

Leonard John Kovar:

We did some training in Tucson first. From there we moved to the East Coast and went over aboard ship on the Santa Lucia or the Santa Maria. I went over on one and back on the other. There were a bunch of British troops and a bunch of Jamaican troops. There were a couple of scenes between the British officers and their Jamaican troops. The Jamaicans were lined up for lunch when a British officer walked by and barked a couple of commands at two or three people and they popped to. He barked a command at another guy, who didn’t move because he did hear him or something. The officer hit the Jamaican with a billy-club. The discipline was like it had been in the Boer War. We were in convoy going over. If I remember correctly there was one moment when they were afraid of a Wolf Pack attack, but it never occurred.

Coy Cross:

What airplane did you train in?

Leonard John Kovar:

As a pilot I trained in a bi-wing airplane, a nice airplane. In bombardier training we flew in a Beechcraft, a twin-engine airplane, but I don’t remember the designation.

Coy Cross:

So you didn’t get your airplane until you actually got to Europe?

Leonard John Kovar:

That’s right. Although we did fly the B-24s in practice at Tucson.

Coy Cross:

Did the B-24s have bombsights on them?

Leonard John Kovar:

Oh, yes. It seems to me it had the Sperry bombsight on it. I was trained in both and I have forgotten which was which. On most bomb-runs there would be a bombardier/navigator in many positions, but not all. Sometimes someone else, either the engineer or the nose-gunner, toggle the bombs. If the bombardier was there, he would release the bombs, but usually on the signal of the lead bombardier. The bombardier also doubled as the navigator. On all but two missions I was on, I acted as navigator as well as bombardier.

Coy Cross:

How long was your training?

Leonard John Kovar:

I went in in January, went through San Antoine, which was the old style, where you were braced all the time. They had 49 different kinds of braces. The upper classmen were looking for reasons to discipline you: you weren’t walking right or you combed your hair wrong or whatever. Then they would put you into a brace, which would be like touching your shoulders, nose, and toes to the wall and standing there for five minutes. There was a lot of Mickey Mouse stuff like that, but it was kind of fun in way, but it was also very rigorous.

Coy Cross:

When did you ship out for Europe?

Leonard John Kovar:

It must have been June 1944. I went in on June 4th, 1943. I went to bombardier school at San Angelo, started August 5th. [reading] "This place is mighty chicken, pretty rough." The officers and upper cadets hazed the lower classmen with ridiculous things. Again, it was sort of fun, but a little rough. I guess the idea was to began to learn that the upper people were boss and you don’t ask "why," you just do it.

Coy Cross:

You got there in August and graduated in?

Leonard John Kovar:

[reading]. "At present I am in Harlingen Gunnery School. The course is a cinch. I went up to high altitude pressure chamber a short while ago. Went to 38 thousand feet." In those days that was a lot of feet. As I understand it, the air pressure is so light on the outside that when you get to 40-41 thousand feet the pressure on the outside is less than the pressure on the inside and you begin to ooze blood everywhere. I don’t know if that is true or not, at some point it is and we were presumably close to that point. In June 1944, I was in Italy. [reading] "In my tent with Turnbull and Gould. It is dirty, but livable. A lot has happened since Harlingen. We left on April 21st, 1944. Bill Descello and I went to Salt Lake City, Utah together. Spent 10 days there and then by train to Camp Patrick Henry. Finally left Newport News, Virginia on the Santa Rosa on June 30th. Spent fifteen days passing Gibraltar, Oran, and so forth before docking at Naples, Italy. Left Naples by train and arrived at Joya [spelling] on July 22. Ten minutes after arriving we received orders to fly to our bomb groups. Bill and I split after nearly a year together. I am now settled in our new group in a tent. Tomorrow we will fly a practice mission and after that it counts. Been going to church as often as possible for a long time and now, I think, come what may, I am ready." [reading] "26 July 44. This morning we started on our first mission, but halfway through the target it was necessary to abort for losing oil. Tomorrow we fly again. I wonder where we are going and how heavy the flak and fighters will be." [reading] "27 July 44. Our mission today was to Budapest, Hungary to hit an ammo plant there. Encountered moderate to heavy flak, but inaccurate. Saw only a couple of fighters. I was impressed that I was hardly scared. Had confidence that we would do okay. Had the feeling that the Lord would take care of us and He did. Seems funny that my first mission was help on Shirley, my sister’s, birthday and the target was the town in which my dad was born in." My dad was born in Budapest and my sister was born on July 27th. In Jungian thought that is called synchronicity, a "meaningful coincidence." The other coincidence was the day I went down was August 22, 1944. I bailed out at 25 thousand feet. Some people were trying to catch me, but I managed to escape. Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, my mother just gave birth to my sister Shirley. In those days they used twilight sleep. They had taken her from the delivery room to her room and it was dark with subdued light. She was kind of wobbly from the anesthetic. She told me this story before I told her anything. She was lying there, the new baby was fine, and everything was good. Suddenly, I appeared to her, all fleshed out, as though I were standing there. She saw me standing there and I was wearing long green clothing, my hair was upset, I was sweaty, and I looked worried and afraid. She described me exactly as I was, at that minute, on the other side of the world. It was so real to her and so startling that she knew that it would be considered crazy. Today you can at least talk about those things, but it those days you didn’t even think about this sort of thing. She saw fit to call a nurse in and describe what she had seen. The nurse made light of it and walked off. But it really startled and worried her. Why would I be worried and afraid? Well on the other side of the world, I had just escaped a squad of soldiers who were coming to get me. I was really sweaty, I had been under a bush and had been eaten alive by mosquitoes and I was trying to get away. So take that as you will.

Coy Cross:

You started flying in late July and were shot down on August 22nd.

Leonard John Kovar:

Yes.

Coy Cross:

How many missions did you have?

Leonard John Kovar:

I went down on number eleven.

Coy Cross:

What were conditions like at the base where you were stationed?

Leonard John Kovar:

We were there long enough to buy some bricks from the local people and put bricks for the floor in our tents. There were four of us in the tent, but it was quite fine. It was as dirty as heck when we got there, but we cleaned it up and it was just fine. The food in the chow hall was really good.

Coy Cross:

Tell us about the mission on which you were shot down.

Leonard John Kovar:

Let me read a couple of things that might be of interest. "It seems funny that the mission was on Shirley’s birthday to the town where my poppy was born." "On the mission we had a little trouble. One engine out and the bombs through the bomb-bay door because of trouble in the linkage. We came back with five flak holes and one engine out." 29 July: "Went to Budapest today. Had a lot of trouble. . . . At one time over the target we fell out of formation and we were all alone when nine FW-190s flew over us and then attacked part of the formation. Still don’t know why they didn’t just us. We were sitting ducks for them. We didn’t get any flak holes as we did last time. Came back with two engines out." The day we went down, August 22nd, we were flying in the number four position of the air force. We were the first squadron of the air force, the fourth airplane, that was hitting the target in Vienna. We had just turned on our IAP. The way the bombing was done in those days you would fly to your initial point 50-75 miles away from the target, then you would turn and begin your bomb run on the target. Then the next squadron would come to a different point, then turn for its run. Within a period of 2-3 hours that the bombing would last, we would carpet-bomb the whole city from all directions and it would just clobber everything. [By the way, we were on the ground at Nuremberg during several bombings and that was pretty scary]. So we turned on our IP and we were running adrift of one degree left. Just then, the Germans sent up some ME-109s to take on our P-51 escort above us. Meanwhile, a couple of squadrons of FW-190s came in from below. They came into us like a "dose of salts" from below. I remember one in particular came barreling through, firing as he came. Cowan, the nose-gunner, was hammering ahead. I was up front and I could look out, too. The FW-190 was pouring shells into us and you could see Cowan’s stuff hitting him. I think, the FW-190 blew-up, otherwise we would have hit him square. The bomb-bays were still closed at this point. About that time someone hollered over the intercom, "We’re afire." I got on my intercom and asked, "Should I open the bomb-bays?" That was the way in which people got out of the airplane. Somebody yelled, "Yes, open the bomb-bays!" So I reached over and grabbed the handle and slammed it open. I remember debating for half-second, although it seemed like a long time, whether I should dump the bombs as well. I looked and couldn’t see a fire, so I delayed thinking maybe we could put the fire out. We had had a fire sometime earlier and had put it out. I turned to help Cowan get out of his nose door. The ball turret was made so the gunner got in and someone else then closed the doors around him. There were two sets of doors: a rounded set, with a set of flat doors inside. The doors had to be aligned for the gunner to get out. He could open the doors on his own, but it took about 1½ minutes. It was a big chore. The agreement was that if we had to get out in a hurry, I would open his inner doors to help him. So I opened the bomb-bays, then reached for the door handles to open them and Cowan was standing there. I have never seen anyone move so rapidly and so efficiently in my life. Cowan is in New York and we correspond and talk on the phone to this day. I put on my chest chute and by then there were flames in front where we were. Our escape route was through the nose-wheel door. There were actually two half-doors that opened out. There were two red handles. I pulled the handles and one door opened, but the other one just opened a crack. There was no way to get out of that airplane with one door closed. I muscled it opened. But normally that couldn’t be done. But somehow I got it open. By now there were flames all around us. I didn’t want to leave that airplane as we were 5-600 miles behind enemy lines. I looked over at Cowan and getting his opinion. He eyes said, "Get out of here, pal!" I remember looking down and thinking to myself, "I wonder if I am afraid." With that I remember this white flicker coming up above and that was my chest chute opening up. Apparently I pulled the chute right away after I got out of the airplane. As I did, a piece of shrapnel hit my left foot and tore off part of the heel. The chute opened up and I found myself in the middle of a dogfight. I was practically at the same altitude, planes were snarling around, pieces of junk were flying. It was scary. Then I began to worry that the fighters would pick me out. That was a scary idea. I drifted a little lower, then I began to worry that I would die of anoxia before I got to a lower elevation. I kept drifting lower and pretty soon the fighting was above me and somewhere else. For a little while I was alone and things got quiet. I remember looking around trying to see who else got out. I was worried about what happened to my crew. I looked around and I could see a little ways, but I didn’t have a clear view. So I decided to turn my chute around. I had never made a jump before. My chute was a chest pack and smaller than the backpack chutes. I believe it was 16’ and the standard was 24’. I pulled on the shroud lines to turn around. Instead of turning, the chute began to oscillate and looked up and there was only a little bubble of air left in the chute. I had almost dumped it. Boy, that scared me to death. I thought, "I am not going to do anything or touch anything." I couldn’t get a good count and at that altitude we were all spread out. I judged that we could be 50 miles apart. I was still pretty high, probably about 15 thousand feet, and I began to be aware of a silence. It was the most utterly exquisite silence I have ever heard. It was a silence that made sound. It was special. I felt this magnificent silence for quite a while. I looked down to see where I could land. It was August and harvest time. The fields were all green with a checkerboard pattern. Every once and awhile I could see an acreage of trees. There was one area of trees that looked like a good place to land, even though it didn’t look too big. I didn’t want to be out in a pasture or an open field where any soldier could pick me up. Obviously, everyone within a hundred-mile radius had to know a huge air-battle was taking place. This was one of the big fights of World War II, I understand, one of the three or four biggest. Therefore, there would be a bunch of civilians as well as the military looking at me and I didn’t want to get caught. So I tried to jockey myself toward that line of trees and, lo and behold, I kept getting closer and closer. Finally I got over the trees and I was coming down fast. I remember putting on my goggles and gloves and I crossed my legs so that when I dropped into this forest I wouldn’t spread-eagle over the branches. I dropped in and the shrouds of my chute hit the tops of the pine trees and I bounced. I bounced down and hit my sore foot. I bounced a couple of times and ended up about a foot off the ground. I couldn’t get out of the harness. I had to get out and I felt it was urgent to do so. So I bounced up and down until I hit the ground and that took the weight off and gave me a moment unbuckle the clasp. So I got out of the harness. I was worried about people coming. I threw away my Mae West, my parachute, my helmet, and my gloves because I was in such a hurry. I could hear people coming from just in front of me and a little off to the right. The forest was really heavy. Normally in Europe, at least what I saw, the forests were very clean, almost like a park. Apparently the reason for that is that people have learned to pick up "squaw wood" from the forest. When they ran out of "squaw wood" they would the lower branches of the trees. That way the tree continued to live and provide wood. But in this particular spot it was very dense, like you would see in the Minnesota woods. I could hear people coming through the forest and I had to get out of there. They were coming from ahead to the right. I took off ahead to the left. I ran about 20 degrees off from the direction they were coming. There was a big heavy bush about 50 yards ahead. I crawled under the bush and laid there. About twenty seconds later, people came into the area and looked around. They saw that I was gone, so they stayed only a short time and then left. Meanwhile I was laying there afraid to move. It was about 10:30 AM on this very warm, beautiful, August day. What do you find under bushes in August? You find mosquitoes by the zillions. I would wipe them off, but there were a lot of them. I waited a little bit and then decided it was time to leave. I crawled out from under the bush and took off my sheepskin flight gear. This turned out to be a mistake later on. I could have used it. Anyway, I headed out of the forest. Pretty soon I was in the open park setting and there was no place to hide at all. I was beginning to get scared because there was no place to hide. I walked up a little rise and at the top there was a little place where a deer or something had bedded down in grass about 1½ feet high. So I laid down in that little depression and laid as flat as I could. I laid as still as I could. Then the mosquitoes really hit. It was really something. This went on and on. Then I began to hear people off to the side slowly combing the area. The reasoning, in my mind, was that nobody in his right mind would go on top of a hill to hide because you could see them from 360 degrees. It got quiet after awhile and the hours went by and the mosquitoes were really terrible. Finally, just at dusk, I sat up and I was euphoric. I was going to make it. I took out a little silk map that I had, which was a pretty poor map, but pretty ingenious, too. I also had a little pouch, kind of like a Bull Durham sack with a drawstring, with three or four item including a rubber container for water. I took my wallet and removed any papers I thought might be of value to the enemy and buried them. I laid out my map and plotted a course to freedom. I was going to go across Hungary, across Italy and Southern France, over the Pyrenees into Spain and turn myself in. That shows you how foolish you can it. That was not possible. As I was sitting there trying to figure out my next course of action, I heard a crack. I looked up and there was a man, a big stocky guy of about 45, who was absent-mindedly walking over the hill. There was a faint suggestion of a game trail and he was walking up this trail. I absolutely froze, but our eyes met. He walked by me so close I could have reached out and touched him. He walked right by me and kept on going. I didn’t move a muscle for awhile. When I thought he was gone, I looked and knew I had to get some place to bed down. With that I began walking for the rest of the night.

Coy Cross:

You went down over Hungary?

Leonard John Kovar:

Yes.

Coy Cross:

Just a couple of things, you mentioned the crew going out the bomb bay door and then you and Cowan go out the nose wheel well. Did part of the crew go out the bomb bay and the rest out the nose wheel?

Leonard John Kovar:

Everyone on the crew, except myself and the nose gunner, went out the bomb bays. The nose gunner and I went out the nose wheel.

Coy Cross:

What unit were you in?

Leonard John Kovar:

The 451st Bomb Group, 727th Squadron.

Coy Cross:

How many people were on your crew?

Leonard John Kovar:

We normally had 10, but often the navigator wouldn’t fly and I would fill in for him. But on that particular day, we had 11 men. We had 10 as usual. I was there only as bombardier that time. Gould, our navigator, was doing his job. At the last minute they brought in a guy named Heinz, I don’t remember his first name, who was going to be the group photographer for that mission. It was his first mission. I only met him as he was getting on board and getting set up. That was the last I saw him. In getting out, Roach, the old man of the crew at 33 years old and married two days before we went overseas, got hit. As our pilot Turnbull was getting out of the airplane, he walked by Roach and Roach was slumped turret with blood coming down his front. He never got out of the airplane. We had two or three men who were burned, too.

Coy Cross:

Ten got out?

Leonard John Kovar:

Ten people got out and, as far as I know, all ten got back. We were able to account for all ten at one point. A couple had wounds and one had some pretty heavy psychological problems.

Coy Cross:

Let’s pick the story back up where you took off down the hill. I apologize for the interruption.

Leonard John Kovar:

I followed a road that I thought was running north-south. It was a good dirt road, one we would consider a pretty good secondary road. I later learned that was a major highway there at that time. One little incident that occurred, I was walking up the road on the right side, the way we would. It was a dark. There was a moon, but it was shrouded, and the night was quite dark. It was dead quiet. Then I heard footsteps coming toward me. I knew if I could hear their footsteps, they could hear mine. So I had better not go into the woods, that would be a dead giveaway that I didn’t want to be found. I walked steadily toward the guy and kept walking toward me. He was on his right side and I was on my right side and we walked right past each other on opposite sides of the road and didn’t say a word. It didn’t occur to me till a long time later that he must have been an American, because over there they walked on the left side of the road. A couple of things happened then. It was nearing dawn and I ended up in a cornfield, with 7-foot high corn. It was marvelous corn. It was one-half to a mile outside this little village. I was almost panicky for water. You can go without food for a long time, but you can’t go without water. As I passed through the town, I recognized where the well was and how to work it. I had stopped in the town and tried to work the main well. The wells in those days over there were made of stone and look like you’d see in a picture book. It had big lever, a big arm, that was weighted so you could pull the water up. The arm had a pole on it. I had never seen one before and I couldn’t figure out how to work it. I was puttering with that as I was going through town because I passionately wanted water, but I just couldn’t get it. As I was working with it, I could feel eyes on me. Sure enough I looked around and someone was watching me. I decided it was time to leave. I found a spot out of town where there was a bunch of bushes then this corn. As I went into the bushes, I found a bush with an area under that was almost as big as a room. By this time I was exhausted and very, very thirsty. I had managed to fill my pouch with water before I left the well. I found a branch of the bush and carefully hung my water pouch from the branch. As I reach down to smooth the ground to lay down, I noticed it was wet. The water pouch had fallen and spilled. Again I had no water. The day passed and I kept telling myself that I knew where the water was and how to get it. As I went through the town there was a dogleg in the road. The well was in the town center. There was also a wall along one side of the road and I could smell water inside that wall. I knew there was some time of church building there, maybe a parsonage. My plan was to go in at midnight and go to the well behind the wall and try to get into the church to look for food or wine. I became more and more thirsty and by eight o’clock I convinced myself that if I went in earlier there would be a few people around and no one would notice one more. So I walked into town carefully keeping out of people’s way. I walked down this dogleg area and as I walked down this wooden walkway I began to hear footsteps. I knew with absolute certainty there were a couple of people around the corner who would walk right into me. As I wondered what to do, a doorway appeared in the side of the wall. I opened the door a ducked in. Sure enough, a couple walked right past. I looked around inside the wall and found the well. I went over to the well, but as I started drawing it out the bucket leaked and you could hear the leaking water splashing below. When I had it about halfway up, I heard footsteps again and knew someone was coming. I carefully let the water back down and hid behind the well just as a little guy came in, opened the gate, walked in a few steps, then stopped and listened. He knew that something wasn’t right. Then he kept on going into the house. I knew that he heard me and I was afraid that he had gone to get a gun. I remember debating whether I should try to take him on when he came out of the door. But I was 500 miles behind the line and it wasn’t a good idea. So I decided to get out of there. I went out and started walking down the street. I had gone a half a block or so when I heard footsteps behind me. I crossed the street and they crossed the street. They were starting to draw closer and were gradually catching up with me. Then two men came up and stood on both sides of me, smiling at each other. We all walked quietly on, smiling at each other. I finally said, "Okay, Jack, I am an American." That quickly grabbed me and ran me around through some back streets unit we came to a framed building of a fairly good size, which I think was the city hall or something of that nature. They took me in there into a big room. At the front of the room was a rail, with a door in it. It was kind of like a stage with doors on the outside. So they put me into this stage area. Pretty soon, a big woman with a couple of teeth missing came in with a chunk of ham with a lot of fat on it, some water, and a piece of green pepper. I drank water until they finally took it away. Being an American I didn’t eat the fat of course. Meanwhile, people kept coming into the room until there were nine men there and they began a discussion. There was also an old man, in my diary I said he was about 70 and I remember thinking he was a very old man. Apparently he had been in Boston some years earlier and spoke a little broken English. So they had him as the interpreter, but he didn’t speak any more English than I spoke Hungarian hardly. They fed me and the men were discussing what they should do with me. Through this old man, I thought these were partisans and that I had it made. I thought they were trying to determine if I wanted to go to Turkey or to Sweden. I didn’t care. Then through the old man I got the message if I didn’t do what I was told I would be shot. I felt that was fine, just tell me what to do and I would do it. I would give them any problems. I was sitting there feeling like I had made. I had eaten a little something and I was feeling euphoric. I reached me hand in my pocket to get a cigarette, I smoked in those days, and these men scattered a bit and got dead quiet. I took my hand out very carefully and showed them I had no weapon. The old man came up to the rail and made it clear to me that I shouldn’t do anything hasty. They were deciding whether to turn me over to the Gestapo or shoot me on the spot. Immediately I was terrified. I turned to kneel and beg for my life in front of this old man. I saw this look of contempt come over his face, a soldier and a Hungarian at that [Kovar is a common Hungarian name]. The Hungarian mores were such that only a coward would beg for his life. Somehow through a reflex or something, I stood up tall as if to say to them, "To hell with you, do what you want!" I looked at them all, one by one. They discuss it for a little while. Then a couple of 16-year-old kids with single-shot 22s, or something similar, came in. They wore homemade military caps. They were eager to do something heroic for the Fatherland and killing a "terror flieger"[SPELLING] as they called us would serve well. Finally they took me out and put me in a buggy. There were two seats and one horse. There was another old man in an overcoat, all bundled up. By now it must have been two in the morning. I sat next to the old man in the overcoat and the two boys sat behind to stop me if I tried to run. We rode along for an hour or so and the boys were playing a game of sticking their 22s in my back, then slowly moving over to the side and firing. I tried to divert them by pointing to a church and saying "That is a church." They would give me the Hungarian word. I tried anything to interrupt their "game." After an hour or so, just before dawn we came to a little larger village in which there was a barracks. It was a long barracks, with two sections with a park in the front with a stone wall around it. I was brought inside to the officer-of-the-day, a young Hungarian soldier. He was 35-40-years-old, stocky, and very pleasant. He received my things that the partisans had taken. The light was very dim. On the floor was big lump that I couldn’t quite see. Pretty soon I could detect that it was someone wrapped with a big heavy chain, like a logging chain, that must have weighed 40 pounds every foot. I then recognized Cowan, my nose-gunner. I asked the officer if he would remove Cowan from his chains, which he did. Both of us laid on the floor and slept for awhile. The next day we had one man guarding the two of us. This man was so proud. He has a sharp uniform and the finest pair of boots I have ever seen in my life. He was very proud of guarding these two "terror fliegers," Cowan and I. We finally got to a train station to wait for a train to take us to Papa. It was a train station like we might find here with a front cupola where you could look out and see the train coming from both directions. The guard wanted us up in the cupola where he could see us. We were an oddity, so a crowd gradually gathered to get a look at us. The crowd was quiet, standing 6-8 steps away. An old man stepped out from the group and said something that I have forgotten to me in English and I responded. I took on step beyond the guard to speak to this man in English. There was a flurry in the crowd and I look back just in time to see an incident. As I went forward, Cowan was next to me. As I went forward, a German soldier that had just been at the Russian front or somewhere like that came forward and attacked Cowan. He was enraged. Our guard was petrified, but he gingerly got the soldier to get back. We finally got to Papa. I think it must have been a penitentiary. I believe there were hewn stones around. There was a second floor. Cowan and I were separated into solitary cells for 3-4 days. About the second or third day, they were going let me out of solitary. There were paratroopers there on R&R, presumably they had been on 20 combat jumps on the Eastern Front. It is not possible for somebody to live through 20 combat jumps, but here were 200-300 guys who had done that. They were tough troops. One soldier, just to be a good guy I guess, let me out and I asked that they bring Cowan out. Cowan came out. By the way, if there is a Hebrew look, that is Cowan. The anti-Semitism was very real, believe me. We were standing out there and these paratroopers were standing back smoking and at rest. Cowan and I were standing there talking with each other. Cowan was on my right. All of a sudden a Hungarian soldier came up from behind, grabbed Cowan, pushed him forward about 8-10 steps, spun him around, took out his side-gun and put it in Cowan’s ear. Everybody was electrified. The place got dead silent. There was a strained minute. The soldier then slowly lowered his pistol and marched back about ten steps then leveled it straight at Cowan again. Cowan stood there, then kind of sagged and blanched, he then stood up straight as if to say, "You bastard, do it!" That was a harry moment.

Coy Cross:

Most of the soldiers around were Hungarians?

Leonard John Kovar:

Yes.

Coy Cross:

Did you have a weapon when you went out of the airplane?

Leonard John Kovar:

We had 45s that we could take. I elected not to take one. I carried a sheath knife that my dad had made. I had to give that up before this incident.

Coy Cross:

When they had captured you and taken you to the camp, was there a lot of interrogation about what you were doing and what unit you were from?

Leonard John Kovar:

There was an interesting interrogation. I finally got to Budapest and I was in cell #33 on the third floor of what I think was probably an old prison. It was on a hill overlooking the city of Budapest. I was in solitary for five days there in a tiny cell with a high ceiling and a window up about 7-8 feet off the floor. I counted the cracks and the bugs and doing push-ups to occupy my mind. My cell door opened and a soldier had me come out. I remember my shirt was out of my trousers and I wanted to present a military appearance, so I put it back in. We walked down the hall a ways when he opened the door and entered this very nice office with a big table, with a German officer sitting behind a nice big desk that was piled on both sides with cigarettes and watches that he had taken from various people. He said in a friendly manner, "Lieutenant Kovar would you like to sit down and have a cigarette?" I sat and began to smoke avidly. He spoke excellent English. He said, "I have some questions to ask you. If you answer them then you will go out to a camp for people like you. You can learn to play the piano there. You can read books. You can go to school and have all kinds of privileges. But I have to prove that you are actually an American and not a political dissident. I think you are an American, but I have to prove it by answering these questions. Name, rank and serial number?" I gave him my name, rank and serial number. He then asked, "What group were you in?" I said, "I am sorry, sir, I can’t answer that." He said, "Okay. What was your squadron?" I said, "I am sorry, sir, I can’t answer that." He said, "Okay. What was your chain-of-command?" I said, "I am sorry, sir, I can’t answer that." He asked me some other questions that I declined to answer. Finally, after a little bit, he got impatient and said, "Why don’t you tell me these things? I know them anyway." I said, "Well, if you know them, why don’t you tell me?" He said, "I think I will." He reached down and got a big ledger book and laid it out on his desk and opened it up and read, "Kovar, Leonard J., 0706317, born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, October 24, 1922. Went into the service on such and such a date." He continued on to our chain-of-command and gave everything correctly, but it was about 3-4 days late. I was astonished and asked, "Where do you get this stuff?" He said, "You Americans are very stupid. You print this stuff, we just compile it."

Coy Cross:

There was no physical violence against you during the interrogation?

Leonard John Kovar:

No, not a bit.

Coy Cross:

Did you stay in the prison in Budapest?

Leonard John Kovar:

Oh, no. I was there after this interview with the interrogating officer. Then I joined another bunch of guys in a room about as big as our dining/family room. We were in a transport cell they called it. They were going to take us to our camp. I think there were 22 people in this room, just enough so that everybody could lie down at the same time, provided that you fitted yourself in pretty good. There was a bucket in one corner for water and a bucket in another corner for refuse. We were there for three or four days. They finally took us out. I ended up on a boxcar with about six or eight men. We had one end and on the other end were four or five German soldiers who were guarding us. We were on that train for a few days. We went through Vienna during an air-raid. We stopped. There were lights out everywhere. That train ride was very significant to me. That was the moment in which I got through college. Just before the war I started college but I was flunking out. The first semester I think I failed two classes and had "D’s" in three others. The second semester I was doing about the same. Rather than take finals, which I knew I would flunk out of college, I went into the service. On that train ride at about two o’clock in the morning one night another guy and I both woke up. We were sitting there in the dark in this boxcar talking about Nash automobiles, which aren’t made anymore. Nash first provided the airflow system that is all cars now. Before that, the heating system would fog up windows. In the middle of that conversation, it suddenly flashed into my head "if I survive this war, I am going to college." That is when I got through college. The rest of it was just work. Making the decision was the part that counted.

Coy Cross:

Were the Germans especially hostile toward the Americans or just the perceived American Jews?

Leonard John Kovar:

This was a war and we were "terror fliegers." They thought we dropped dolls that were loaded with bombs so that when children picked them up they would lose arms. There wasn’t a whole bunch of warmth. However, toward the end of the war, that is within the last six weeks or so, the attitude changed dramatically. Up to then, it was a war and they were on one side and we were on the other. They had no warmth for us. However, I was in organized camps at that point. But the last couple of weeks were very different.

Coy Cross:

What camp did you go to from Budapest?

Leonard John Kovar:

From Budapest I went to Stalagluft 3, which is in Lower Silesia, up in Saagan. It was a big camp with 10,000 men, divided into Northeast, South, West and Central Camps. I was in West Camp. I was there for about three months. In some ways it was pretty easy in a sense. We didn’t get a lot of food. We had a bunk to sleep in, which was a pelliace that is a nine-slats with a base for a bed with a burlap or a paper bag filled with straw as a mattress. We were issued one or two blankets, which were enough. It was American-run, in that the German commandant had the highest-ranking American officer in each camp as the commandant of that camp. Our man was Dar H. Alkier, who was a great guy. He did his job. As I recall, he was an older man, about 36. I was about 21 at that point. The big thing about Saagan, in Christmas of 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge, in the middle of the following January the Russians were in Warsaw making an assault toward Berlin. The Oder River was a couple of miles north of our camp. When the Russians began their assault, they came to the Oder River and paused to regroup, gather their supplies, and make their pontoon bridges, I suppose. Meanwhile, they were bombarding the German positions. We could see the artillery shelling. Everybody knew that the Russians were soon going to be there. Our attitude was "Boy, we cannot let ourselves be captured by the Russians. That would be the end." We believed, and I still think it is true, that if we had been captured by the Russians we would have been shipped to Siberia and would never have been heard of again. Alkier ordered that everybody march ten miles a day to begin to get in shape, which we did. A week or so ahead of time, we began to prepare for the possibility of a march. Everybody tried to do something in the way of getting ready, making a pack or something. Food was pretty scarce. It would be a soup, pretty thin. Without the Red Cross I am confident none of us would have survived. About once a week there would be a little gristle in the soup. There were 15 guys in my room. Someone would be designated to cut the bread. The bread was about the size of a one-pound loaf. It was very heavy bread, made of five ingredients, as I understand it, wheat, rye, oats, something else, and one-fifth sawdust. It was really a good bread and very heavy. When the soup came, the person serving would look through it to see if there were any bits of gristle or meat. He put that aside and we would cut cards or something like that to determine who got the gristle. But the food was enough to sustain us. In the latter part of January when the Russians were near, we knew something was happening. We could feel it and hear it. My buddy, Hal Vanevry and I had gone to choir, we were part of the choir, and the choir was about half full from what it should have been. At the practice everyone was nervous and edgy because the front was getting close and we knew something was going to happen. We disbanded the choir practice and went back to our rooms. I suppose it was about 8 P.M. at that point. We hadn’t been back but a few minutes when someone breathless opened the door and shouted, "Room fuehrers in Major Ott’s room!" Harold Vanevry was our room leader. He went and came back in about five minutes, "We march in one hour. Get everything ready and destroy what you can’t take." We didn’t want to leave anything for the Germans. We got our stuff ready. I had made a backpack out of a summer shirt. It was a pretty big backpack, but I didn’t have a good way of holding it together. About an hour or hour-and-a-half later, we were called out to get ready to move. They had taken away everything and then replaced it with something else. The shoes I got were too small and they were Polish shoes of very poor quality. They were very tight, very uncomfortable, and very cold. This was Northern Germany in January. It was cold. A day or two before my friend Hal had gotten a hold of a pair of newer, American-made shoes, which were 11½ EEE or EE. I wear a 10½. He was going to throwaway his old shoes, but I took them. I managed to find some cardboard and cut it to make insoles. If we hadn’t changed those shoes, I know I wouldn’t have made it. My feet would have frozen for sure. We stood out side in the cold for an hour or two while the other camps were moving. There were 10,000 men on the road and moving 10,000 men is no small thing. We were the last camp to go. They finally opened the gates and we walked by a supply shed, with a window, and a German soldier tossed out an American Red Cross parcel to each one of us as we were dog-trotting out. It was awkward to carry. We dog-trotted for the first hour or so. It was getting really cold while we were standing and waiting. I figure it was about zero at that point and it was dropping fast. It got colder and colder. We started on the march and it was a very brutal march. We marched two nights and a day and cover 105 kilometers, without food or rest. It was rumored that it was forty below and I believe it. It was the worst blizzard I have ever seen. I grew up in Minnesota and lived 15 years in Montana and that was the worst blizzard, by far, that I have ever seen. It was supposedly blizzard that Western Europe had seen in many years. Men fell out along the way. I don’t want to tell you how many men we lost, but we lost a lot of men. We ended up in a little town, Muscow, with a brick factory. We arrived just at dawn. The worst part of the blizzard had past and it was beginning to clear, but it was still crisp. It was probably back up to zero at this point. It was truly a brutal trip. A book by Joe Klaus, "Maybe I’m Dead," is essentially about that march. It is a novel, but it is based on the real experience. The other book that I have is "Prisoners of Combine D," by Len Giovanetti. He is a better writer, but for some reason he softens the physical. It was physically much harder than he depicts. Joe Klaus has it about right, but Giovanetti catches the hurt and the depression and the scorn and the psychological ugliness of it much better. When you think of a story like this it sounds like a great, John Wayne adventure. It is an adventure, but what they don’t show is the emotional impact of that. It left its mark on everybody. Nobody escaped that. A number of things happened during the march that were interesting. But we went through it and we lost a lot of men. I won’t tell you, because I don’t believe it. Although, we believed it at the time.

Coy Cross:

If the Red Cross was at the camp, I assume there was some contact or some word that went back to your families.

Leonard John Kovar:

Yes. I was able to have my name, as one of several, sent to ham radio operators. My name and a number of others got out. So my family knew that I was a prisoner-of-war. That was part of the news that my mother sent to other people.

Coy Cross:

After the march, did you go to another camp in the little town?

Leonard John Kovar:

The day after the march we went into a brick factory with a big kiln, which was absolutely a lifesaver. We went up to the second floor. The kiln was operating and it was very warm, probably 110 degrees, exactly what we needed. People separated everywhere. As we got close to the town, guys did what they could to stay alive. So some of them found a way to get into a haystack. A bunch of us managed to end up the top of this kiln. It was just perfect. It was dry. The next day we had a good bowl of soup. We were there about two days. Then we were to march about twenty miles to the boxcars. But after about ½ mile guys were falling out already. They were so exhausted by the big march that after ½ mile they were collapsing. So they marched us back for another day. They fed us. The next day we marched down to Springburg, I believe it was. There was a big gymnasium jammed with men. As we were in there, a German officer came in with a small stepstool. He came over to the side of the gym near where I was and stood on his stepstool. He called everybody to attention and he had German news. Of course, everybody lived for the news. He read the news and the news was that the Russians were entering the outskirts of Berlin. The German news was pretty accurate, but a couple of days late. We knew from that the Allies were in Berlin. The German news was probably the most accurate. The British was the most balanced. The American news was too flamboyant, you couldn’t trust it. There was too much propaganda. We heard it, but we learned not to believe it too much. In that speech the German officer told us the news and then he dropped his paper and spontaneously began to say, "Join us! We are brothers and we should be at war in the first place. Join us and face our common enemy. One of these days the Russian horde will advance to your soil and take over your country. Join us and fight our common enemy." Of course, we snickered at that. They marched us the next day a few miles to a marshalling yard where there was a bunch of empty 40-and-8 boxcars. I think the 40-and-8 boxcar is 10x20, or about half the size of ours. They loaded us on the boxcar and closed the door. In my boxcar there were 61 men with our gear, which meant that everyone could standup but, of course, you were touching somebody all the time. But there wasn’t enough room for everybody to sit down at once nor, obviously, was there enough room for everybody to lie down. So that people had to be lying, sitting, and standing. We were on that all day and all night with no water and no toilet. The next morning we got out for a 15-minute breather.

Coy Cross:

Len, would you share with me how many people did die on the march?

Leonard John Kovar:

I don’t know actually. But we had our estimate. We started with 2,100 men from out camp. We lost about 50 percent and we thought we had lost more than that.

Coy Cross:

Would you share the part when the camp was liberated.

Leonard John Kovar:

One of the most dramatic moments of my life. We were at Nuremberg for a couple of months. It was filthy dirty and we had bombings regularly. The British bombed by night and the Americans by day. They knew where we were, but the bombings were often quite close to where we were. We left there and marched rather leisurely for about three weeks until we got to Stalag 7A, I think it was. It was a huge camp. I think it was originally been designed for 5,000 men, but we had many more. The food was scarce, but we were hanging in there. Everybody knew the war was in its last days. The motto of the time was "Don’t do anything foolish. This is no time to be getting killed. This is too late in the war to risk anything." I remember one time Vanevry and I were on the second march standing in the middle of the road and we debated whether we should escape. And we could have done it. We would have had to walk up the hill, bury ourselves in the bush, and let the troops go on. Pretty soon we would have been overtaken by American troops. We decided against that because at that point neither side was taking prisoners. That meant that our friendly American troops weren’t taking prisoners either. If you were 50 or 100 men you would probably be okay, but two men would have been very precarious. We decided to stay with the troops and get through it. War takes good men and leads them to do the most ungodly things they can think of. That is what war really is. There is nothing glamorous about it. We knew that liberation would be at any time now. It was a beautiful day in May. You could sense that freedom was in the air. We just knew that it was close. About 9 or 10 in the morning, the American troops arrived. The Germans had pretty well left by then, leaving a small rear-guard. The Americans came in and there was some small arms fire. Some tanks rolled up. When this began, everyone ran for cover. I was in a tent out on a parade field. People were gathered from everywhere, so there were all kinds of men in all kinds of conditions. Originally, there were slit-trenches near where my tent was. The trenches had been covered by woven branches. But over the time men had been living there, people had torn down the branches and used the wood for fires. So the trenches became sunken little wells. The fighting began and I ran for cover and laid down in one of these trenches. The small-arms fire went on for a little while and then it stopped. When it stopped everything got dead silent. If you listened, you could hear a tank motor. Then there came a murmuring sound. I stuck my head out of my little foxhole and saw several men all over the field, either crawling out or standing. Everyone standing was pointing in one direction. I crawled out, stood up and looked in that same direction. Across the barbwire were some small trees, across the trees was the headquarters building with a standard on top. I stood up just in time to see the Nazi standard being drawn down and a minute or so later the American flag raised. I stood there with tears coming down my face and saluted my flag. The order came from the American commander that the men were to stay put. There were a lot of men in that camp and they didn’t want them wandering all over the place. The fighting was still continuing, although it was obvious the Germans couldn’t last long, and they didn’t. So everybody was ordered to stay in camp, but nobody wanted to do that. I remember Patton’s car coming in with the flags on the fenders. They opened the gate and a tank came in just swarming with guys. I was standing next to the tank and I remember one on the tanker guys was standing up there and I yelled out, "Blood and Guts Patton, hallelujah!" The guy snarled down at me and said, "Yea, his guts and our blood." Brickley, a friend of mine, and I had both just had arguments with some of our people over toilet paper, which was a precious commodity. I was mad. Brickley came over and said, "Kovar, let’s get the hell out of here," and I said, "Okay, let’s do it." So we walked toward the gate and he said, "I’ll do the talking." There was a 4x4 truck, I believe they call them, that was leaving and it was empty and we jumped on. When we got to the gate, Brickley wave a piece of paper at the guard and said, "We’re on detail." So he didn’t stop us. We ended up about 6-8 miles down the road and I remember finding a temporary command center. There was a captain there bragging about how they took care of German prisoners. He had display of weapons for different ways to kill people, one of which was a tube with a spring on it. You could go up behind someone and put that to the back of their neck and a spike would shoot out and kill them. He mentioned, sorrowfully, that when every they found an SS man, he would have his sergeant take them over to the compound and the SS man always tried to escape. So they had to shoot them. I ended up at a temporary airfield. I got on a DC-3 and I was in the cockpit with the crew. I had an upset stomach. So when we passed over the Rhine, I never saw it because I so sick I didn’t care. I ended up at Le Havre and I was there for only about five days. During that time the fed us "up to our ears." Then I was aboard the Santa Lucia coming back. About three or four days out, we heard the war was officially over. I came back to the States and went immediately home to Minneapolis, where I spent two weeks. That’s when my mother did the interrogation and the writing. Then I went to Florida for R&R and then I was going to Texas where I was going to be reassigned to go to Japan. They wanted everybody they could get for the war against Japan. I was in New Orleans when the war in the Pacific was declared over. Then I was ordered to Fort McHenry. I think I must have been one of the very first people to get discharged. The discharge procedures had not yet been set. I understand that my papers are a little different from other peoples’. They didn’t expect the war to end that soon.

Coy Cross:

What did you do after the war?

Leonard John Kovar:

I then went to college on the G.I. Bill. That G.I. Bill was one of the brightest things this country has every done. I went to McAllister College and from there to seminary. In college I major in psychology and economics and then went to seminary and from there to churches. The G.I. Bill gave me five years of education and $105 a month, which was enough to live on. Laraine worked and between us we got by fine. We got married December 28, 1948. My last year in college I got a notice they wanted me to report for duty in Korea. I wrote back saying that I was signed up to go to seminary and I never heard another word about that. My buddy Bill was called up then. He went to Korea and by the time it was over, he just stayed in until he retired. After seminary, I went to Harden, Montana for our first parish.

Coy Cross:

Do you think your experiences affected you?

Leonard John Kovar:

I think my experience during the war led me to be interested in psychology in college. I don’t think anyone could go through the war without being affected. Immediately after the war, I was pretty shaken.

Coy Cross:

Did you stay in contact with any of your buddies from the war?

Leonard John Kovar:

I still stay in contact with some of the other POWs. Vanevry and I are the only two who are still alive. There are four of my crew still alive, including me. We get together every two years. I am part of a local POW club, too.

Coy Cross:

Len, I really appreciate your taking the time to talk with us and share your story.

 
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  October 26, 2011
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