90, Sterling Heights
Charles Celusnak’s family moved from Czechoslovakia to the Detroit area in 1926, where his father worked as a job setter at Chrysler.
He said he was working at Michigan Bell when he joined the Navy after the United States went to war.
“I didn’t want to get drafted. I didn’t want to be an infantryman,” Celusnak recalled.
He was eventually assigned to the 6th Naval Beach Battalion and left for England on the Queen Mary on Christmas Eve 1943. After months of training, he was embedded with elements of the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division that landed on Omaha Beach at 11 a.m. on D-Day.
“We knew it was bad because of the 1st Division there; the guys, the infantrymen told us it could be rough,” Celusnak said. “You can’t visualize anything until you’re actually there.”
Celusnak said he waded ashore from a landing craft and spent the rest of the day in chaos, helping with casualties and trying to organize the beach landings, while dodging artillery fire from German 88mm guns.
“You could see just-wounded or dead soldiers all over the place. It was a mess,” Celusnak recalled.
He spent the first night on the beach huddled at the foot of an embankment, about the only place he could find that offered any protection from the deadly artillery.
“I laid down next to a guy. I thought he was dead,” Celusnak said. “In the morning, I felt something tapping on me, and he’s just, ‘You got a cigarette?’ It scared the hell out of me.”
June 6, 1944, was the first of many days Celusnak spent on the coast of France. While the Army fought its way inland, the Navy men stayed behind clearing obstacles and working to coordinate the massive onshore flow of Allied personnel, equipment and firepower.
Celusnak turned 21 on Omaha Beach on June 14. By incredible coincidence, the mail caught up to him around that time and he opened a package from his mother that contained a small bottle of whiskey and a little piece of birthday cake.
Although correspondence from the combat zone was strictly censored at the time, Celusnak said he devised a system to let his family know where he was. When he addressed letters home, his father’s middle initial changed from “E” for England to “F” for France in June 1944.
Celusnak was in Normandy until August before he was sent back to England, then to the U.S., and then to the Pacific.
He left the Navy in 1946 but was recalled to service when the Korean War began in 1950. He met his wife in 1948 and married her four years later. They now have six daughters, 12 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Celusnak worked for several companies but retired from General Motors in 1986 as a traffic manager for the company’s parts division.
He said he didn’t speak much about his experiences in the war for years, but he said he had an opportunity to share his story at his granddaughter’s high school graduation in 2013.
“Before she graduated, she asked me if I would talk on the invasion of France,” Celusnak said. “And those kids were excellent listeners, good questions, and they got the first-hand information about what I’m relating to you. It was kind of an honor to do something like that.”