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October 26, 2008

'War is hell': Caseyville vet served in four major campaigns

When World War II veteran Oscar L. Covarrubias talks to local students about his experiences fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, he tells them how devastating war is and how lucky he and his three brothers were to come home.

When World War II veteran Oscar L. Covarrubias talks to local students about his experiences fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, he tells them how devastating war is and how lucky he and his three brothers were to come home.

Covarrubias, 89, of Caseyville, sticks to his notes on background details, such as how he worked in oil fields before he was drafted in 1941 for a year of service, but ended up staying for four-and-a-half years.

He does not share the more vivid, sometimes gruesome, memories he has of four major campaigns in Northern France, Rhineland, Central Europe and the Ardennes with the 949th Field Artillery Battalion.

Covarrubias said he remembers Dec. 22, 1944.

Gen. George S. Patton Jr. and the 3rd Army had been preparing to cross the Rhine River from the Saar Valley. It rained for days on end and the troops were hip-deep in mud.

They were ordered to leave the mud to relieve the troops at Bastogne.

"Battle of the Bulge started and we were damn glad to get out of there. Well, we didn't realize what we were getting into at Battle of the Bulge, either," he said.

Covarrubias served as a driver and artillery man for a 155mm Howitzer. He said the 3rd Army moved 150 miles in three days at a five mph pace.

Patton had them disconnect the lights on every vehicle, including the blackout lights, Covarrubias said. "He didn't want to take no chances on anything."

"Out there in the blackouts, someone is supposed to lead the vehicles with a white towel or a white piece of paper to guide the tanks, but there wasn't one of them who would get in front of a tank," Covarrubias said. "If there was anything out there, you'd just run over it."

As they got closer to Bastogne, the mud and rain became snow and ice.

"We pulled in and it was snow up to your waist and under that snow was four inches of ice," he said. "We didn't have clothing for it and if they got wounded, most froze to death before we could get them out. We had a heck of a time making it."

"The body is lying out there in the damn snow, frozen and everything. It's like I've just run over a log or something. What can you do? You can't go home. You get hardened off to it."

Covarrubias stayed with the artillery on the outskirts of Bastogne and paved the way for the infantry.

"Anyone who had a vehicle was fortunate because you could get a little heat out of it. You didn't have heaters in them or nothing but you had heat from the exhaust," he said. "There were times when I thought about getting transferred into a tank outfit, but you don't want to board that damn thing. It's a pretty good target."

Covarrubias said he helped relieve some concentration camps.

"You look at it just like it's concrete blocks laying out there ... that's all you can do. There's nothing you can do about it. They're dead."

Covarrubias said he feels fortunate he and his three brothers, all from East St. Louis, served in World War II and none was wounded or killed.

"But when I was drafted, 22 years old, I didn't give a damn," he said. "It was easier in the army than here trying to put bread on the table after the Great Depression."

The eldest brother, Walter Colby, joined the Army, but became a mechanic in the Air Force for 28 years; Charles Corvallis joined the Navy for six years as a pharmacist; and George Corvallis was in the Army for a year before he was discharged because of his asthma.

Covarrubias said their names were all different because a judge recommended that his father give the two younger brothers, Charles and George, a last name that was more English-sounding. Walter changed his last name while he was enlisted to something easier to say during combat.

The three brothers and two sisters, Lillian and Hazel, have since died.

When Covarrubias returned to the metro-east, he worked as a machinist until he retired.

Covarrubias now lives with his wife, Velda, in Caseyville.

Every so often. he and others of the St. Louis Gateway Chapter of Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge give 15-minute talks at local schools about their experiences.

"When I get ready to conclude, I tell them war is hell," Covarrubias said. "It's too bad that it has to happen, but it does. But as long as it has to happen, let it happen on the other guy's territory. Let's keep them wars overseas and keep our country free."

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 239-2655.

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