Witness to History: D-Day’s 70th Anniversary Memories

. June 30, 2014.
veterans

Frank Kocinski has had five hip replacements and hopes to have both knees replaced, but his aching joints haven’t slowed him down much. The 91-year-old retired millwright and World War II hero, who earned a Silver Star for bravery on D-Day, still tends a backyard garden and enjoys bowling every week. In a recent interview in the Sylvania Township home he built with his own hands in 1946, he cracked a smile when bragging that he had won four bowling games the day before. He’s also built two boats in his barn, saying, “There’s nothing beyond reach for me.” Kocinski grew up in Swanton and worked on a farm to help his family pay the bills after his father died when Frank was  nine. He played football at Swanton High School, where he met the love of his life, Zelah. The couple celebrated their 67th anniversary this year.

Reporting for duty

Kocinski was drafted by the Army in December, 1942, and reported for duty the following January to Camp Swift, Texas. He was trained as a combat engineer and later as an amphibious engineer with the 147th Special Engineering Brigade. His Landing Craft Infantry (LCI) No. 99, an amphibious troop transport ship, was among the first to arrive on Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. While the military’s top brass had planned the invasion of German-occupied France for years—the largest military operation in history—nothing went as planned that day for 21-year-old Army Sgt. Kocinski. He had been in the ship’s forward hold when scores of soldiers became seasick in the rough seas. When he went above deck to get some fresh air, a lieutenant ordered him to go back down. He tried to obey but was repelled by the smell. “I turned around and slammed the door shut—and that’s when the shell hit the hold,” Kocinski said. “Killed every person in there.” The LCI had ramps on each side that were raised during transport and would lower for beach landings.“Before we could stop, the Germans blew the ramps off with 88s [88mm guns],” Kocinski said as he and Zelah looked through a scrapbook of his Army days. A platoon sergeant, he was to lead 44 men onto the beach. Machine-gun bullets were zipping past the ship. “I had to dive into the ocean and get the heck out of there before we would get shot up by the Germans.” He had two bands of ammunition over his shoulders and carried seven hand grenades and 40 pounds of explosives. A floating gas mask held his head up but his “Mae West” life vest couldn’t handle the weight, so he ditched the gear and swam to shore. “By the time I got halfway to the beach, the ship caught fire from front to back,” Kocinski said. “Most of the guys got off of there pretty healthy, but some of them got burnt pretty seriously.” The cause of the ship fire was never determined, he added. Once he reached the shore, Nazi machine gunners zeroed in on his platoon. “I think I lost 16 men right off the bat, and it was very disorganized with all this going on. I’d been machine-gunned about seven or eight times going across that beach and they missed me every time,” Kocinski said. They didn’t miss by much. “I had a bullet go through the webbing on my helmet. I had one bullet flip my first-aid pack upside down. I got one through the sole of my boot,” he said.

Pulled a soldier to safety

Kocinski saw a soldier floating in the waves, blood turning the water red. “I jumped up and swam out there and grabbed him by the collar and drug him to safety,” he said. Ironically, he added, it was a soldier who once threatened to shoot him for putting him on KP duty. Kocinski sprinted toward the sand dunes as the Nazi gunners strafed the beach, splashing sand into his eyes. He estimated that it took 15 to 20 minutes from the time he dove into the ocean until he reached the safety of the dunes, where he teamed up with another soldier. Both of them were shivering from the cold, but were ready for the next task. “I says, ‘You know we are going to go nuts sitting over here. Let’s get over the hill and do something,’” Kocinski recalled. They broke into a house the Germans had just abandoned and found a cache of rifle grenades. “I took the rifle grenades … and I shot my way back through the tunnels, and we would blow the Germans out of them,” Kocinski said. His Silver Star commendation cited his “personal bravery and valor” for volunteering to clear the tunnels of Nazi snipers. Kocinski, who has been to France three times for D-Day anniversaries, said he just did what he had to do. “You get seriously scared and you can’t control your emotions. I mean, you didn’t just sit there and cry,” he said. Zelah smiled and patted his arm. “We’re very proud of him,” she said. “I think he’s one awesome dude.”

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