Central Texan recounts father's D-Day landing stories

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WEST, Texas (KWTX) The son of a West man who was one of those who waded ashore on Omaha Beach 75 years ago Thursday shared his father’s stories about the D-Day landing and the treasures he kept from his service in World War II.

Some 156,000 American, British and Canadian troops stormed the 50 miles of Normandy's beaches in northern France against a German force that was dug in, in an operation that proved a critical turning point in the war.

Alfons J. Cinek grew row crops, raised two sons and two daughters and spent most of his life a rock’s throw from West, except for a few years after he was drafted into service during World War II on June 8, 1942.

Ironically his son, Alfons J. Cinek, Jr., joined up for his hitch in the U.S. Navy exactly 27 years later, June 8, 1969, “only I didn’t find that out until a couple of years ago,” the younger Cinek said.

Cinek, Sr. trained at several camps stateside, then in May 1944 found himself sailing to England, which, though unknown to him at the time, would shortly trust him into the heart of the European land war.

He was assigned to the 736th Signal Battalion that was responsible for setting up lines of communication between units on the battlefield with his buddy, Tom Brock, who was from Oglesby, in Coryell County.

Cenik, Jr. has a small bottle full of sand from Omaha Beach where his father landed that was given to him by a friend from West who visited the beaches some time ago and was mindful enough to collect a bit of the sand to bring home as a remembrance.

Margie Masek Davis grew up in West and now has retired from a lifetime of teaching.

It was she who visited Omaha Beach and brought the sand grains back as a teaching tool for her class, but then passed some along to friends who had special connections to Normandy Beach, including Cinek, Jr.

“It was really emotional,” Davis recalled of her trip in a telephone interview from her home, “a really emotional thing.”

She recalled strolling along the expansive beach, then climbing a cliff beachside where on top, aligned with military precision, white crosses and stars of David grave markers, 9,388 of them, all facing the United States, commemorate each American life lost on Omaha Beach below.

The  Normandy American Cemetery  and Memorial is located in Colleville-sur-Mer, on the same ground first used as the American St. Laurent Cemetery, established as a temporary burial site by the U.S. First Army on June 8, 1944, the first American cemetery on European soil in World War II.

Of the 9,388 burials there, 307 of the soldiers are unknown, cemetery records show.

On that day more than 150,000 allied soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines threw themselves in an all-out assault against an entrenched German Army which commanders knew was an “all in” gamble because victory on D-Day likely guaranteed victory against Germany in the end, but defeat at Normandy could spell the same end for the Allies.

“They knew that,” Cinek, Jr., said, “They knew how important what they were doing was and they fought like hell to win.”

Cinek, Jr. said his father didn’t talk about the experience much until he reached his 80s, “and then he figured we ought to hear his stories,” Cinek Jr. said.

“He told us about riding in that (Higgins) boat going to the beach and how all the soldiers, young men and grown men, alike, were yelling prayers to God and crying for their mammas as they went.

“He said everybody was looking for some kind of hope and my father said another soldier asked dad to pray with him, and they prayed together until the boat gate opened and they ran into the water and onto shore.”

“I know he was terrified,” Cinek Sr’s. granddaughter, Hannah Matula, said.

“He’d tell those stories and you could see his eyes welling up and tell in his face the memories brought back terror.”

Cinek Jr. shared a host of memories about his dad this week during an interview at his home near West, including a metal box inscribed in Dutch, that his father brought back from Europe.

“His unit was involved in liberating a city and a company that baked cookies was there,” Cinek Jr. said.

So, when the soldiers found boxes and boxes of cookies in a bombed-out warehouse, they ate them … “but dad saved one of the tin boxes and he always kept his memories in it.”

The biscuit company, Beukelaer’s Biscuits, still is in business and some time ago learned Cinek, Jr., had the box, one of only a few that remain.

The company offered Cinek, Jr. Several hundred dollars for the empty container, but he said “It’s something my father chose to bring back from the war to hold his memorabilia and I told them no.”

One special item just recently discovered in his memories was a letter, mailed May 23, 1944, just 14 days before Cinek, Sr. landed on Omaha Beach, to Miss Rosalie Gerard, in Hamilton, Texas, who after the war would become Cinek, Sr’s wife.

The note, hand-written in pencil, begins: “Darling; As I have a little time today I thought I would write my darling a few lines.”

The letter continues in part: “I’m doing all right but I have seen better days, ha, ha. But don’t worry, darling...”

“Maybe it won’t be to (sic) long now and we will be together again. So, keep hoping and praying. It’s bad, but it could be worse.”

In closing Cinek, Sr. writes: “Hope you will be able to make this writing out. This fox hole writing is no good!”

The battle at Normandy raised ire among other members of Cinek’s family, too, including Cinek Jr’s grandfather, who had German ancestry.

“He hated what the Germans were doing and after D-Day he told us all he could not believe it,” Cinek, Jr. said.

While D-Day was Cinek, Sr’s introduction to the war in Europe, he went from there to Berlin and was there for VE Day, but along the way he saw brutal images of man’s inhumanity to man left behind by the Nazis at places like Buchenwald, one of the largest German concentration camps of the war.

“On April 11, 1945, in expectation of liberation, starved and emaciated prisoners stormed the watchtowers, seizing control of the camp. Later that afternoon, US forces entered Buchenwald. Soldiers from the 6th Armored Division, part of the Third Army, found more than 21,000 people in the camp,” a U.S. Army history says.

“Between July 1937 and April 1945, the SS imprisoned some 250,000 persons from all countries of Europe in Buchenwald.

“Exact mortality figures for the Buchenwald site can only be estimated, as camp authorities never registered a significant number of the prisoners.

“The SS murdered at least 56,000 male prisoners in the Buchenwald camp system, some 11,000 of them Jews,” historical records show.

“Dad told us about that,” Cinek, Jr. said, “and he said there was a sign, in German, of course, above the gate that said: ‘Come in through the gate and go out through the chimney.’

“He’d get emotional at times when he remembered standing next to a pile of human ashes that was 7-feet tall.”

Cinek, Sr. told his family after the liberation of Berlin and Germany’s surrender, the Army put his unit on a boat that was headed home, “but they didn’t get far,” Cinek, Jr., said, “because a few days out of port the ship was re-routed to the Sea of Japan and he fought the rest of the war.”

Some historians today say the D-Day struggle actually spelled end of World War II and the fear planners had at the beginning turned out to be true: whichever side lost that battle would lose the war.

Service is kind of a thing in Cinek Jr’s family, he said, because his father-in-law saw combat with the U.S. Marines at Iwo Jima.

“He always told us he was within yards of the flag raising,” Cinek, Jr. said.

Cinek, Jr. said his father’s stories and the lessons he learned as a boy only helped him “realize what the price of freedom really is.”

He remembered a phrase used by a Viet Nam veteran friend of his, Tim Craft, who said: “Freedom has a flavor that the protected will never taste.”

According to the D-Day Center, the invasion, officially named "Operation Overlord," saw “156,115 U.S., British and Canadian troops, 6,939 ships and landing vessels, and 2,395 aircraft and 867 gliders that delivered airborne troops,” and it remains the largest amphibious combat landing in world history.

Though some believe so, the name D-Day really doesn’t stand for anything, it was just a common military designation for the launch date of a mission, hopefully to keep the actual date out of the hands of spies, similar to the term H-Hour.

Operation Overlord was divided among sections of beachfront along the Normandy coast codenamed, from West to East: “Utah,” “Omaha,” “Gold,” “Juno” and “Sword,” but fighting at Omaha was the most fierce.

“At Omaha Beach, bombing runs had failed to take out heavily fortified Nazi artillery positions,” a D-Day historical account says.

The first waves of American fighters were cut down in droves by German machine gun fire as they scrambled across the mine-riddled beach, but U.S. forces persisted through the day-long slog, pushing forward to a fortified seawall and then up steep bluffs to take out the Nazi artillery posts by nightfall.

“All told, around 2,400 American troops were killed, wounded or unaccounted for after the fighting at Omaha Beach,” the history explains.