Veteran Salute: Dave Covert, Terry, Montana
November 3, 2016
Dave Covert hasn't lived in Terry, Montana, all his life. Just for the past 70 years.
A grocery store and a severe case of trench foot are what brought him to the small town. A cute girl made him stay.
Today the 93-year-old veteran of World War II reflects on nearly a century of life in a world that has changed more drastically than any other time span in history.
Covert was born and grew up in nearby Glendive, where his father was the superintendent of rural schools for Dawson County. His dad would wear out a Model T every year and a half traveling the glorified cow trails between what Covert thinks were 137 rural schools at the time. Later, for a year of their family's lives, the elder Covert taught school at a one-room schoolhouse on the Powder River in Custer County, Mont. Covert remembers well the little log house they rented to live in, but even more, a welcomed break from studies on a hot, late summer afternoon.
“We fell into the deepest sleep you can imagine – but around 2 a.m. I woke up to find my feet absolutely on fire. I stuck them out from under the covers and went back to sleep. On waking in the morning I (and several of my squad) found my feet swollen beyond belief – so tender it was impossible to put my combat boots on.” Dave Covert, WWII veteran
"One day at recess Mr. Ostendorf came with his big Buick with two huge washtubs full of cantaloupe. He had some knives and spoons, and oh, boy did we have fun. Dad gave us an extended recess that day! We got all the cantaloupe we could eat. It was such a treat – in those days we didn't get a lot of fresh fruit. People didn't go to town much, and people didn't have much money."
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Covert was an only child – a rarity in those days, born to parents who were married "much later in life," at age 34. His memory returns many times to stories of his father and mother; remnants of a happy childhood lingering still after 75 years.
"Most of the kids rode to school on horses – it was ranch country, no question about that. We had a big water cooler near the cloakroom with a single water dipper that we all drank out of," he laughs.
"I remember one winter all the kids in the school must have made a pact to meet under the bridge on a Sunday afternoon. We built a big driftwood fire and everyone who had skates brought them along. The main thing I remember, our feet got so cold – we had cold, cold winters then. It was probably 20 below that day but we had sheepskin coats, mufflers around our faces."
In the summers Covert's dad worked supplemental jobs, one that included a grocery store in Circle, which eventually led him to manage a store in Watford City, N.D., where Covert graduated high school in 1941. With shadows of war looming over a still peaceful United States, Covert went to the West Coast where he worked as a metal burner on the "ways" in the ship yards, constructing naval ships. "When I left there, they were launching a ship every other day," he says.
On Dec. 7, 1941, news of Pearl Harbor hit the home front, and America was at war.
"At that time you were either drafted or you could volunteer. I knew that my number was about to come up, so I didn't volunteer then but went home and worked for my dad for a couple of months first."
His number was drawn in early 1943. Covert joined 12 other men from McKenzie County, N.D., to ship off to Fort Snelling, Minnesota. It was there in induction that he discovered he was colorblind.
His initial dream was to be in the Air Force: "Every kid wanted to be in the Air Force, it was the romantic dream, even though not everyone got to fly," he says. "But the induction officer did the test and I couldn't see the shapes, so he told me, 'You better go to the Army, because you're not going to make the Air Force!'
"The Army didn't care if I was colorblind – the only colors they cared about at the time were red, white and blue."
Covert arrived at Army infantry basic training in Camp Adair, Ore., in August of 1943. Training was rigorous, but a deep camaraderie developed among soldiers. Weekend passes meant freedom to enjoy small local towns or big cities like Portland or Salem. Every Sunday lists of families invited soldiers out for Sunday dinner.
In late summer of 1944 Covert's 70th Division was called up as replacement for the front line in Europe. A train trip from Missouri, where they had been transferred, to the East Coast was highlighted by local citizens meeting the train of soldiers with fresh donuts, coffee and cookies. Covert first sailed to England, then was shipped across the English Channel for a landing on Omaha Beach – just 90 days after one of the most costly landings of all of WWII had occurred in that same location – destined for the European Theater of Operations, or ETO.
Covey says he doesn't remember much about the next few days – likely the trauma of being at war was too much.
The Allied front had progressed past Paris, and was close to the German border. Covert and his squad moved through small villages south of Paris, and toward the heavily German-fortified town of Metz, France. It was here they engaged in a tumultuous period of six- to eight-weeks known as the Battle of Metz, attempting to overtake a series of German-occupied mountainous forts known as the "Maginot Line."
"I remember Fort Driant the best – when we would try to take one of these emplacements we would start with 300 to 400 men to get up there, and at the top they had the big guns, and below that machine gun placements. You had to face that. After two or three attempts we knew we couldn't do it, we killed too many men."
His troops attempted many tactics – snake torpedoes, Bangalore torpedoes, dive bombers – to rout out the Germans, who would just retreat deeper into the mountainous tunnels, then come back up to fight.
"In the end we were able to move at night through the valley toward Metz, and left about 800 to 900 men to isolate [Fort Driant]. Eventually they just starved the Germans out."
Covert's role as squad leader in securing the city of Metz was real and brutal. Digging out foxholes to escape enemy fire, camping next to bodies of fellow soldiers killed weeks earlier, and waking up to find his coat – used as a blanket – frozen to the ground. The weather in France is similar to Montana, and it was November.
"We did a lot of sleeping out in the open," says Covert. "Our helmets had a liner inside. Quite often you would take your helmet off, put the liner over your head. It would protect your head and keep the rain off.
"We also had 2-man tents, about as big as a kitchen table when set up, and each man carried half. If you were in a place that was fairly level or if it was raining or snowing, you could set it up. In combat we didn't get to do that very much."
After the troops reached Metz, it took three to four days for the city to be declared "taken." Covert and several of his squad were becoming very lame, and their Captain suggested they take over some Nazi officer's quarters in a nice apartment building. Covert remembers closets full of officer uniforms and elegant gowns of wives or girlfriends, as well as the feather tick beds.
"We fell into the deepest sleep you can imagine – but around 2 a.m. I woke up to find my feet absolutely on fire. I stuck them out from under the covers and went back to sleep. On waking in the morning I (and several of my squad) found my feet swollen beyond belief – so tender it was impossible to put my combat boots on."
Covert was diagnosed with having frozen his feet terribly, and taken by train to a U.S. Army hospital in Paris.
"The second day there a dietician came in and asked us what we would like for dinner. The choice: steak, pork chops or chicken. Wow! I chose steak!"
To his surprise, Covert could only eat a third of the delicious meal. "The Major started laughing, and said that was the story with everyone who came in. They explained that since our rations were so concentrated, our stomachs had shrunk to the size of an orange, and we couldn't eat any more than that!"
Covert was evacuated to a recuperative hospital in England, where he spent three months – the first six weeks without walking. As he was about to return to combat, General Eisenhower sent out the order that any soldier with trench foot could not return to combat, as there were too many cases filling up hospital beds needed by the severely wounded.
After the armistice there was a period of inactivity and the Army knew they needed to get the soldiers busy with something. Covert was allowed furlough in Switzerland, took college classes, and enjoyed many adventures as a stockade prisoner guard.
He returned to the U.S. aboard a retrofitted "Liberty Ship" similar to the ones he had helped construct nearly three years before in Oregon.
Covert returned to Terry, where his parents had moved to take over the grocery store there. He met a young girl named Lucille Jones, and shortly after recognized her as "quite a jewel who I knew I had to marry." They ran grocery stores for the Reynold's chain, eventually becoming owners of the Terry grocery until they sold it in 1990. Along the way they were blessed with a son and two daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Their son Kent served in Viet Nam, and their grandson Lyle Onstad was a medic in the Gulf War.
The gravity and depths of suffering of warfare are something that likely cannot ever be fully understood by anyone who has not experienced combat. To hear the stories cannot do justice to the momentousness of the sacrifice and the reality of loss that 75 years later, still trigger emotions in a 93-year-old soldier.
"We were young. I was only 22, and the same as a lot of young people today, you just feel like you're invincible, like surely you're not going to get hit.
"But you always have that feeling in the bottom of your stomach; deep down you're scared all the time. I was losing men all around me. Day and night something could happen. You know it, but you have to keep going. You're over there, and the only way you're going to get out of it is to fight your way out."
"So many people lost their lives … so many wives and sweethearts and children that were left behind … it was just … so sad."
And that was as much as he could say.