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Lest we forget John Trzaskos' story of World War II

Saturday, July 05, 2014 - Updated: 4:08 AM


It may be hard to be believe, but in 10 years, the few surviving World War II veterans may be gone, and with them they will take the stories of courage and sacrifice that helped to end one of the worst wars in history.

It is a reality that World War II veteran John Trzaskos of Amsterdam faced this year when he attended the 70th Anniversary of D-Day at the American Cemetery in Normandy, France.

"This was the last commemoration for many of us," he said Thursday. "They only hold them every ten years. The majority of us are already over 100, so when they hold the next one, we are going to be dead."

It was important for Trzaskos to not only attend the commemoration event to honor the fallen, but also to visit the various places in Normandy that left their marks in history.

One of those places was Omaha Beach, where Trzaskos fought for four days with the U.S. Army's 29th Infantry Division after successfully landing there during the June 6, 1944 invasion.

It is also the location where he was taken a prisoner of war for 11 months.

Trzaskos was 19 and working at General Electric when he was drafted and sent to England on the Queen Mary to train for the invasion. The invasion is something Trzaskos said he will never forget.

"I was part of the second wave," he said. "We came in during high tide, three hours after the first wave. We got to shore and we saw all the other Americans dead. Our officer yelled at us, that we had to get off the beach because the Germans were going to pick us off."

Not only did they have to worry about the German sharp shooters, but also traps that had been planted on the beach, making their advance difficult.

"The guy a few steps in front of me stepped on a land mine and he got his leg blown off," Trzaskos said. "I was lucky."

The division fought its way up the cliffs for four days and four nights, but as riflemen, up against the artillery of the Germans, they knew they couldn't hold out much longer.

At midnight June 10, the Germans opened fire before surrounding them until they were trapped. The Germans would take 58 of them as prisoners of war.

"They put us in a vehicle and took us to Paris to show the president that the invasion failed," he recalled. "After that, they locked me in a box car, with a few other guys. We were going to Czechoslovakia, and that is where I would spend my winter."

After the initial capture, Trzaskos had been reported missing, but in a news article shortly after, it explained that the War Department had received a telegram from Trzaskos' parents explaining how he had been taken a prisoner of war. They had received the news through the International Red Cross.

Trzaskos remained a prisoner until the end of the war. While details of his imprisonment have begun to fade, he recalled that the living conditions weren't the greatest.

"They gave us some type of black bread in the morning," he said. "We also got some horse meat on Sundays. It was red, but when you are hungry like that you will eat anything."

The sleeping quarters consisted of double bunks, but rather then mattresses, the soldiers were given bags to fill up with straw. At night, they would be attacked by bed bugs.

A week before World War II ended, Trzaskos and two other men were able to escape from the guards, and were taken in by a postmaster who had an office with an attic nearby.

"While we were up there, the only bathroom was downstairs behind his office. This German came in and slammed his stuff down on the counter in the office. He was going to make the office his headquarters," Trzaskos said. "I remember I took off my shoes and tiptoed back up to the attic."

After the German left, the postmaster told the soldiers they had to leave. They wandered in the street until they were caught by another German.

However, Trzaskos said he was a "civilized German" who knew the war was ending and ended up feeding them.

"He cooked us a chicken dinner and we sat down with him to eat," he said.

Two days later, the war ended, and the 42nd Division of the U.S Army came to rescue the soldiers. It was 11 months after they had been captured, and Trzaskos and his fellow prisoners of war boarded a boat back to the Americas. Trzaskos was two weeks shy of his 21st birthday.

Trzaskos said it was important for him to return to Normandy this year to remember all that had happened and share his story with others.

"It meant a lot to me. I realize now that I am lucky that I wasn't killed," he said.


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