When Dan Cylkowski graduated from high school in 1943, the United States was in the throes of the Second World War. North Africa had just been taken under Allied control, and Cylkowski’s mailbox was full of recruitment letters from every branch of the military.
He knew he was military bound, but his choice was made for him when a draft notice from the Army arrived.
The son of a World War I veteran and with a brother in the Air Corps, he was proud to join the Army. When a girl asked him why he was joining the “plain Army” he took it as an insult and didn’t talk to her again.
“I'm not going to the Marine Corps because they have a very dashing uniform at that time. They said the uniform was $100 extra and you could get that. You would look great in that uniform. I said I'm not going in for a uniform, I'm going there to serve my country.”
Not long after taking his notice to Fort Snelling, he was bound for Europe. He longed to be in the Air Corps or Officer Candidate School, but the Army needed cooks and truck drivers.
“Oh, my gosh, I'll never be a cook. I'll burn everything. I'll just spoil everything,” he thought. And, he couldn’t drive either.
He was deployed as a replacement, filling in on units all over Europe, doing whatever was needed. He stood guard during the Battle of the Bulge, took cover from German bombs in Avranches, France, saw concentration camps and sang in the Army Glee Club.
His variety of duties kept him from advancing in rank; he left the Army in 1946 as a private first class.
“I felt it was kind of a letdown,’’ he said. “But the main thing is I came through without a scratch.”
Now Cylkowski and Corrine, his wife of 68 years, live in Little Canada, not far from where he grew up in East St. Paul. He is a proud member of the greatest generation, recognizing the importance of the mission he was on, but deeply feeling the sacrifices that were made.
“Look at the cemeteries, all 18, 19-year-old boys, the way they died. Is that fair?” he asked. “You say war is hell, damn well it’s hell. … Let’s hope we never have another war again.”
Photographer Evan Frost interviewed Dan Cylkowski. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. It is part of MPR News’ Portraits of Valor series, which features Minnesota’s World War II veterans.
Could you tell me about how you got into the military?
Shortly after I graduated, a couple of weeks after, I was drafted into the United States Army, I was sought by other branches. The Marine Corps, the Navy, the Merchant Marines, they were all after me to sign up with them. They thought they had a really good program. But they couldn't contact me once I got my draft notice. But before I got my draft notices, I was getting a lot of flyers and things in the mail about joining the Marine Corps, joining the Navy and be a swabbie with the bell-bottom trousers and all that stuff.
I chose the Army because my father was a veteran of World War I. He was wounded, he received a Purple Heart. And then my brother also was in the Army a couple months before I was, and he went to the Army Air Corps. I thought, well, if the Army is good enough for my dad in World War I and here I am deciding what to do, and my brother. The Army is good for me, too.
I know one girl came up to me, I was really slighted because she said to me, you mean you're going into the plain Army? I consider that quite an insult. Plain Army? I'm going to fight for our country. I don't care plain or not. I'm not going to the Marine Corps because they had a very dashing uniform at that time. They said the uniform was $100 extra and you could get that, you would look great in that uniform. I said I'm not going in for a uniform, I'm going there to serve my country. That's what I wanted to do. When someone says the plain Army, I consider that an insult. I quit talking to her after that. Whatever.
How did it feel to get your draft notice?
I was really nervous. I was really anxious, but I was praying because I had a habit, we got a radio. And I love big band music. Of course Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Jimmy Dorsey, all the big bands. They were very popular then. I just love that kind of music. I wanted to be a musician someday. I couldn't make up my mind what I really wanted to be. But I wanted to be in a band, play an instrument. I thought I wanted to be a singer also. I love to sing. I could memorize a song so fast they couldn't believe it. Could this sound like bragging? I know I shouldn't say that, but I could remember a song very fast anyhow.
So I would go right up, real close to the radio up against there. And my sister always kept saying to me: Dan, you are not going to be accepted in the Army. You're going to be a 4-F because you're not going to have hearing. Oh, I'll be fine. She says no. And she'd see me laying on the floor, my ear right up against the radio. Why I did, I don't know.
I was afraid it might be the truth. She might be right. Maybe, maybe I better let off a little bit. But I loved the music, so I still kept doing that, you know? So I just prayed and prayed that I'd be accepted. Well, when I had my physical and they accepted me, you have no idea how glorified I was.
I thought, oh, God, my prayers were answered.
Can you tell me about an experience from the war that really stuck with you?
I remember being in Avranches, France, and we were just massacred there. It was a big battle and I had this prayer book and the rosary and the crucifix and all that. I was quite a devout Catholic, and especially in those conditions you become more devout, it seems.
Well, that night they came, they had these flares, like a parachute flare. They were so bright, they were just hanging in the air. Just staying there a long time. It was so bright you hardly could even look at them, and they just stayed there. And just hang in the air.
I peeked, I was in my foxhole. I looked. Oh, my God. I just see it's blinding, and bombs. The noise was so bad. You're scared to hell. I was praying, hollering and screaming. I was screaming. I didn't have any action, but was just screaming: Lord, please save me, and all. I promised the Lord, if you get me through, I promise you every day before I go to bed, I will make a special prayer to you, which I did, because I was really scared.
The sound, the sound was so bad I couldn't hear myself scream.
I was crushing everything and I still have it. I gave it to my granddaughter. I just crushed the crucifix and everything else in there. And every day I just wore it with me. I never gave it up. I got through that horrible bombing we had at Avranches.
What was so important about you being there and fighting?
You’re fighting for your country and you're wondering, what am I doing here? Some of the things that, some of the orders we were given, I thought, this doesn't make sense. Why are we doing this now? Doesn't make sense. But the saying was, ours is not to question why, ours is but to do or die, and accept it. That's it. You're in the Army. You do what they tell you to do. They'll give the orders and you just do it. Whether you like it or not.
How did you hear that the war was over?
They just ran through and told us. One of the fellows that heard it on says, the war is over. We're good to go home.
[However, that joy was short-lived. Cylkowski was sent to the South Pacific]
I said, you gotta be kidding. Well, we made it through one war, we're not going to make it through another. Let the guys who are over there, let them take care of that war over there.
So then we're in training for the war in South Pacific, we're going to Japan. I thought, well, I made it through this one, but the Lord is not going to keep us through both of them. We're going to be tremendously lucky to get out of this one.
But all of a sudden, you hear the thing about an atomic bomb. People were very, very much against it. I tell you, when we got the news that they blew it up, you know, the use of the atomic bomb, even though a lot of people are complaining about it, it's so inhumane. That's a terrible way to win a war. We thought it was a blessing, right? Because we knew they'd save about a million lives. Use it.
You want to win and have this thing over.
It's been on long enough.