Brothers Michael and Jimmy Tsikalas had a chance encounter with each other shortly after the D-Day invasion took place.
Michael spent the first day of the historic Operation Overlord amphibious landing – June 6, 1944 – transporting First United States Army fighters across the English Channel to the shores of Normandy, France, aboard a Navy tank landing craft. Meanwhile, Jimmy made landfall when the Allies’ invasion of Nazi-occupied Western Europe started.
“As I was aboard the ship, my brother, Jimmy, was on a PT boat,” Michael Tsikalas said. “He had one of the admirals with him. They came by the boat. I was on the boat with my helmet on. And he hollered, ‘Hey, sailor, is my brother, Mike, there?' I took my hat off and I says, ‘Yeah, it’s me, Jim. How ya doing?’ ”
Jimmy Tsikalas died fighting the Japanese during the Battle of Okinawa, which took place from April 1 to June 22, 1945.
His younger brother recalled their brief meeting during an interview inside his Ebensburg home on Wednesday, one day before his 95th birthday.
“And that was the last time I saw him,” he said.
'We hit the beach'
Michael Tsikalas, at age 17, joined the Navy only about two months before D-Day, which he called “the longest day of my life.” He was aboard one of the more than 800 transport ships used in the invasion.
“When we hit the beach, the ramp came down and all the soldiers that we had on our ship, our boat, they all came off to Omaha Beach,” he said. “We were the first ones to land on Omaha Beach, the first wave on Omaha Beach.”
Tsikalas operated a 20mm cannon during the fight.
“I was the man with the trigger,” Tsikalas said. “I had a great time killing Hitler’s men.”
But he also met German POWs.
“We had a couple prisoners on our boat,” Tsikalas said. “I just didn’t feel good at all about the Germans that we captured. They were actually the same age as I was. They were like young men, like we were. But we had to do what we had to do. That’s all.”
'Help to win the war'
D-Day, which occurred 77 years ago this weekend, marked a major turning point in the war. Almost 160,000 Allied troops landed in Normandy on June 4. More followed in the ensuing weeks. They pushed into Germany and ultimately defeated the Third Reich with the official surrender coming on VE Day, May 8, 1945.
“I was very, very proud to have something to do to help to win the war,” Tsikalas said. “I’m very proud.”
Tsikalas later spent time in the Pacific Theater. He then returned home to Ebensburg, owned a family diner for years, served as the borough’s mayor and coached youth football.
“My friends today say, 'Your dad was always like a father to us,' ” said his son, Emanuel Michael “Mike” Tsikalas. “He always taught us life lessons. They’ll never forget those experiences in football.”
His son added: “He impacted a lot of lives here in Ebensburg.”