He fought “The Desert Fox” at Kasserine Pass

Mike Sovan was the commander of a Chaffee tank in Patton’s 3rd Army during World War II. A picture of him while in the service along with his 6th Armored Division patch, Sergeant stripes and his military medals are all part of a shadowbox displayed on the wall of his Englewood, Fla. home. Sun Photo by Jonathan Fredin.

Mike Sovan was the commander of a Chaffee tank in Patton’s 3rd Army during World War II. A picture of him while in the service along with his 6th Armored Division patch, Sergeant stripes and his military medals are all part of a shadowbox displayed on the wall of his Englewood, Fla. home. Sun Photo by Jonathan Fredin.

Sgt. Mike Sovan, a Sherman tank commander, and his men had just crossed the Nied River in France during World War II as part of Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army when their third tank was shot out from under them.

“It was right after Thanksgiving in ’44. A German 88 (cannon) was waiting for us on the other side of the river. They knocked us out,” the old soldier said recalling the deadly fight along the river that ensued after his tank was blown apart.

The high-velocity German 88 millimeter projectile went in one side of their Sherman tank and came out the other side. Three of his buddies died. The lethal enemy gun was concealed along the river bank behind a wall in front of the oncoming 6th Armored Division’s tanks.

“Me and Jonesey, my loader, survived the hit,” Sovan recalled 60 years later. “Jonesey was from South Carolina. He couldn’t read or write, but he was the best damned loader I ever had.

“We jumped out of our knocked-out tank with our grease guns and some hand grenades. We took on the German gun emplacement. Before we hit the 88 we had to knock out the enemy machine gun nest protecting the artillery piece.

“We grenaded the machine gun nest and then we hit them with our grease guns,” he said. “After that we repeated the performance on the 88 crew. There were at least a half dozen Germans working the gun when we hit them.

“The battle was over in a couple of minutes.

“You don’t think much about what you’re doing while you’re doing it,” Sovan said. “When it was all over there were dead Germans everywhere. We sat down on the wall protecting the 88 and shook like hell Jonesey and me.”

For his action at the Nied River — eliminating the German machine gun position and taking out the 88 millimeter artillery piece—Sgt. Mike Sovan, A-Company, 15th Tank Battalion, 6th Armored Division of Patton’s 3rd Army received his first Silver Star.

It had been two years since he lost his first tank at the Kasserine Pass in North Africa. At the time he was a tank commander in the 1st Armored Division that took part in “Operation Torch,” the code name for the invasion of North Africa that began in November 1942.

Gen. Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps were dug in and waiting for the 1st Armored Division in the mountain pass. The “Desert Fox” out-generaled and out-gunned the green American troops. The 1st Armored’s  tanks were no match for the Germans tanks with their heavier armor and bigger guns.

“We couldn’t go head-to-head with a Tiger tank. We were in open terrain when our tank got hit by an 88 from a Tiger,” Sovan recalled. “I never saw the German tank when I lost my first Sherman.”

He was lucky during that attack. Sovan and one other member of his tank crew escaped the carnage inside the Sherman. The other three crew members were killed by the enemy shell.

Mike Sovan is the one seated in the foreground. The other three soldiers were part of his tank crew. All three were killed in shootouts they had with German Tiger tanks.

“I’ve got no use for that SOB (British Field Marshal Bernard) Montgomery,” he said emphatically. “He sent us up ahead through the Kasserine Pass like so much cannon fodder while he and his men regrouped and did nothing. We got chewed up by Rommel.”

Shortly after the American 1st Armored Division’s disaster at the Kasserine Pass in February 1943, Gen. Patton took command. The change in the division’s soldiers was swift under the leadership of  “Ol’ Blood ‘n’ Guts.”

“It was the difference between night and day in generalship,” Sovan said. “Gen. Patton told his division commanders, ‘If you can’t do it, we’ll get someone else who can.’”

It wasn’t long after that Patton and his 1st Armored Division spearheaded the Allied offensive and ran the Germans out of North Africa. They escaped by ship to Sicily.

Patton was given command of the 7th Army and he followed Rommel to Sicily along with Gen. Montgomery and the English 8th Army. It was the first step in the invasion of the European Continent.

The American general with his armored legions partially encircled the island from the west side. His objective: take Messina, one of the island’s major cities, that was held by the Germans. Montgomery attacked the “Desert Fox” from the east with the English 8th Army.

“We had the Big Red 1, the 1st Infantry Division, with us in Sicily. They were good soldiers,” Sovan said. “We beat that SOB Montgomery to Messina, but I never made it.

“I lost my second tank just before Messina when it was struck by another 88 shell. I was hit in the stomach and arms by shrapnel and pretty well torn up,” he said.

“When I came to I was on an airplane headed for England. I don’t know what happened to the rest of my tank crew. I never saw them again. I spent the next six weeks in the hospital,” Sovan recalled.

When he was released from the hospital he was transferred to the 6th Armored Division in England that was preparing for the D-Day Invasion of Europe. Two weeks after that the first Allied troops hit the invasion beaches, Sovan and the 6th Armored were part of Patton’s 3rd Army that landed along the shore of Normandy, France.

“We were involved in the breakout at St. Lo. The 6th Armored turned south toward Brest. It took us 10 days to cover the 250 miles from St. Lo to Brest, fighting all the way,” he said.

Patton’s army then turned back north across France and headed toward Nancy, which became a major resupply depot for Allied forces in the middle of the country.

“We sat there at Nancy for two months waiting to be resupplied. Gen. (Dwight) Eisenhower took all our ammunition and gasoline and gave it to that damned Montgomery.”

It would be November 1944 before Patton and his 3rd Army started advancing again. This is when Sovan lost his third tank and received his first Silver Star.

“We could lose a tank in the morning and they would issue another one to us by the afternoon. That’s what beat the Germans,” the old tanker explained.

The soldiers of the Third Reich were overwhelmed by American industrial production.

They reached Metz in Southern France by late December ’44 when the Germans went on the offensive in the Ardennes Forrest launching the “Battle of the Bulge.” Before it was over more than a million soldiers on both side took part in the largest enemy offensive on the Western Front in World War II.

The 7th Armored Division took the 6th’s place at Metz.  Sovan and his division headed toward Bastogne and the “Battle of the Bulge.” They were sent to rescue the American 101st Airborne Division encircled in the massive German offensive.

“On Christmas Day we were on our way to Bastogne. I was having Christmas dinner in my tank as we rolled along. It consisted of a can of cheese and a couple of biscuits—we called ‘em dog bones.

“When we reached Bastogne we replaced the 10th Armored Division. The 4th Armored had already broken through to the 101st Airborne,” he said.

“I was never as scared in my life as I was at Bastogne. It was freezing and I was afraid of dying from the cold. I don’t know how those 101st Airborne guys survived the cold and the snow in foxholes.”

After the German defeat at the “Battle of the Bulge,” Sovan and the 6th Armored continued advancing from town to town on their way into Germany. The division crossed the Rhine River near Worms. They fought their way through the dragon teeth, concrete pylon-type tank barriers, forming part of the Siegfried Line of enemy fortifications along Germany’s Western border.

Sgt. Sovan is pictured leaning against “Sad Sack,” his Chaffee tank that survived World War II.

It was more of the same for Sovan and his division as they advanced deeper and deeper into the Fatherland. They reached Leipzig, where Sovan received his second Silver Star.

“Leipzig was bristling with anti-aircraft guns. I think they manufactured ball-bearings needed for war machinery.  It was loaded with German troops, too,”  Sovan said.

Although he doesn’t like to talk about the engagement that resulted in his second Silver Star, Sovan did say, “I put my nose where it shouldn’t have been. We had a patrol that got in trouble. I took my tank out to rescue them.

“We got shot up, too. I don’t know where it came from, but our tank was hit by another 88. Only two of us survived the attack. The other three guys were killed,” Sovan said softly.

He looked down, tightly closed his eyes, grimaced and shook his head. The 88 attack on his tank near Leipzig was a lifetime ago, but it still brought back bad memories for the old soldier.

The 6th never took Leipzig, it bypassed the city and let the infantry solve the problem.

“Patton saw our mission as coming in and disrupting everything,” Sovan explained. “If enemy resistance was too much we went around it. We were to keep going.”

“We sat at the Elbe River for two weeks waiting for the Russians to arrive on the other side. It must have been late April or early May ’45 when they showed up,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe the bedraggled-looking outfits the Russians wore. They had horses pulling vehicles. I don’t know how they ever got to the Elbe.

“When they told us the war was over, you know what we all did? We laid down and went to sleep near the river. We were tired.”

Today he is long-retired and lives in a mobile home park in Englewood, Fla. Sovan spends much of his time fishing in nearby Lemon Bay for trout, redfish and snook.

Reminiscing about Patton, Sovan said of his commander, “He was Superman. A lot of people didn’t like Patton, but we did because he got things done. He was gung-ho and that’s what won the war.”

Sovan’s File

Name: Mike Sovan
Address: Englewood, Fla.
Entered service: 1942
Discharged: 1945
Age: 85 (at the time of interview)
Rank: Sergeant
Unit: 15th Tank Battalion, 6th Armored Division, 3rd Army
Commendations: Three Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars, Bronze Star with V for Valor, four bronze service stars and a bronze arrowhead for four major battles and a beach landing; North Africa, Sicily, Normandy, Northern France, the Ardennes, Central Europe and Rhineland campaigns, European Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Good Conduct Medal
Spouse: Daisy Finch
Children: Michael
Update: Sovan died on July 20, 2004. He was 86.

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Wednesday, April 2, 2003 and is republished with permission.

All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be republished without permission. Links are encouraged.

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Michael J. Sovan, 85, Englewood, died July 20, 2004, at Doctors Hospital in Sarasota.

He was born Oct. 2, 1918, in Chisholm, Minn., and came to Englewood in 1947 from Hot Springs, Ark. He was an Army veteran of World War II, serving in the Sixth Armored Division under Gen. George Patton, and was awarded three Purple Heart Medals.

He was a carpenter and a residential contractor in Sarasota and Charlotte counties and built one of the first houses in North Port.

He was a past president of the Englewood Lions Club and was active in Boy Scouts of America, serving as Scout Leader of Troop No. 26. He served in many other phases of scouting, which earned him the Golden Beaver Award, the highest award given to non-scouts.

Survivors include a son, Michael H. of Englewood; and two grandchildren. The family will receive friends from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, with a Celebration of Life service following, at Lemon Bay Funeral Home, Englewood Chapel. Private family inurnment will be later in Gulf Pines Memorial Park in Englewood. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to Boy Scout Troop No. 26, c/o David Dignam, 1201 S. McCall Road, Englewood, FL 34223.

Published in Herald Tribune on July 22, 2004

Comments

    • Just read your father’s story. My father, William J. Kehoe, Jr., also served in the 15th Battalion, 6th Armored Division, 3rd Army. It seems like they may have served together. My father received the Silver Star on August 17, 1944 for Gallantry in Action in the area of Lorient, France (Caudan, France) and the Bronze Star while serving under Lieut. Col. Embry Lagrew in Brest. I am pleased to have come upon your father’s interview. Though active in veteran organizations (even serving as commander of the VFW), my father shared little of the events of war until the end of his life at age 82. He spent his later years reading about WWII, Patton and the Super Sixth. I regret that I did not research the internet for related articles for him. He would have enjoyed hearing these stories. Reading your father’s interview provided me with further insight into my father’s life during those war years. Thank you for making it available. They served this nation proudly and we are so fortunate to call them our dads.

  1. This gentleman needs his name added to Webster’s Dictionary-

    Mike So’van:
    –adjective
    1. possessing or exhibiting courage or courageous endurance.
    2. making a fine appearance.
    3. Archaic . excellent; fine; admirable.
    –noun
    4. a brave person.
    5. a warrior.
    –verb (used with object)
    6. to meet or face courageously: to brave misfortunes.
    7. to defy; challenge; dare.
    8. to make splendid.

    • Mike was an incredible soldier. He lost a dozen fellow tankers in the four Shermans he had shot out front under him during World War II. Each time one of his tanks was hit by a German 88 Mike lost three men. He was a tough guy and he was hardly over five feet tall. What a tanker.
      Regards,
      Don Moore

  2. My Great-Uncle PFC. John W. Winnicki served in Co C 15th Tk Bn of the 6th, He was KIA on November 19th, 1944 and listed as MIA in Lorraine… I have only found out about his life in the last few years, with most of the info his youngest (and only remaining) brother has told me, My Grandfather. I really enjoyed this article…

    http://i32.photobucket.com/albums/d36/winnicki/WWII/0342.jpg (I’m currently rebuilding this house that Uncle John built)

  3. Awesome recounting of a tough and brave hero. I often watch the Military Channel depictions of these famous battles and wonder what it was really like. Mike Sovan’s words put me right there in the action. Wish I could have met him. Now he rests with the old soldiers. God bless them all.

    • John,
      Thank you for taking the time to read Mike Sovan’s story, and especially taking the time to comment. Mike was a true blue hero, but you’d never know it if you’d have ever met him. Few people realize he earned only 2 fewer medals than Audie Murphy, and he was just about the same size.
      Thank you again –
      DM

  4. This is my grandfather, he was the nicest man. I remember seeing in his drawer a fancy knife, the only thing I could get out of him was that it was a German dress knife and would not tell me anything else. I’m so proud of him I did not realize what he had been through in his time of service! I would ask but he never would tell me. He never bragged about any of this. As a matter of fact until I read your story Don, I still knew nothing about his story besides he served under Patton and I do remember him having much respect for him! So thank you very much Don for telling me his story as he has passed now and without it I would have never have known any of this! I think he just wanted to me to remember him as grandpa and I do he was the best grandpa a grandson could ask for! And I’m so proud of him, wish I could have told him in person what a great man he was, LOVE YOU GRANDPA AND MISS YOU EVERYDAY!!!!

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  6. My dad was in the 15th tank battalion 6th armoured division part of Pattons third army.
    He had similar amounts of decorations, and also knew many of soldiers in this battalion who died. He said they were “some of the best friends he would ever have in this world”
    My Dad also liked to express that owing to the great deal of death his battalion experienced, there would never be any movies or very much history of thier activity in WW2 brought to public attention at all. Simply put, there was no one hardly left to tell the stories. I liked reading this one as my dad, Popeye as everyone knew him by, passed away when in 1992. It is nice to hear a story similar to the ones he told.

  7. My pa lost part of his foot in the battle of Kasserine Pass, Tunisia. I just got his replacement medals and as soon as I can afford the $80 or so they want for the records that should have accompanied all his medals I will write a better reply of his exploits.

    I remember what he told me (he died in 1978), but the records will fill the gaps. I didn’t know until recently when I tried to get my own records and medals replaced that it was even possible to obtain them, though.

    Here is one thing, though: They sent him to recover in Panama for his foot wound (where I would spend a few years duty forty years after he did!) and he was so dedicated that when he was asked by Patton when he toured the military “hospital” in Africa if there was anything the General could do for him, my pa said he just wanted to be reunited with his men as so as he was able, again.

    Less than a year later he was and went on to perform some white glove jump for Churchill and Allied command with some group or paratroopers. One of the medals they sent me has the bronze star signifying participation in multiple campaigns in WWII, so it would add credence to his history, the way he related it to me.

    I hardly ever saw any of his medals or such when he was alive, nor did he speak much of them. He did seem to be more proud of some nazi “trophies” he brought back (particularly an SA dagger he obtained in hand to hand). He was a real “man’s man”, but you could tell he suffered from what we now call PTSD just by the amount of self medication he did to numb it. He never whined or complained, though. In his “book” that just wasn’t what a “real man” did. I sure did love him, but he was a definite enigma. Very strict, but would do things like raise orphaned animals when he knew they were orphaned…

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