By Lori Gottula
When Joe Martinez woke up that day, he had no idea it would be his last. He was fighting in a war, so he knew that death was possible, but, like every other man his age, he felt invincible. He still had hopes and dreams, and plans for his life after the war.
The day that he died was May 26, 1943. He was gunned down during World War II in a battle that author Paul Gallico described in fascinating detail in an article that he wrote for the April 1944 edition of Esquire magazine.
According to Gallico’s article, Martinez was a 23-year-old Mexican-American who was born in a small, dusty adobe on the outskirts of Taos, New Mexico. He and his family later moved to the base of the Rocky Mountains, to a town called Ault, Colorado. Martinez was inducted into the Army on Aug. 7, 1942, in Denver. He blended in then, with the sea of grass-green uniforms, and synchronized platoon marches. He was now an American soldier, trained to think as an appendage of the body, rather than a lone soul.
No one heard much about him after his induction, until the day that he died. It was during a battle for Attu Island, the furthest outpost of the Aluetian chain, just off of Alaska. The island had been claimed by Japanese forces, and Martinez was part of a battalion that was sent to drive the enemy from the heights that it held between Holtz Bay and Chichagof Harbor.
And Martinez took the job very seriously.
According to Gallico’s article, Martinez and his battalion were face-down in the snow on a mountain pass. They had just watched in horror as the officers and friends that had gone ahead of them dropped one-by-one like heart-attack victims. Many lay dead in the pass, as their rivers of life streamed onto the dirty-white snow.
No one will ever know what went through Martinez’s mind then, but as bullets blazed around him and his fellow troops, and grenades exploded into tornado clouds of dust and debris, Martinez stood up—alone. Without looking back to see if his comrades had followed him, he trudged up the pass, in knee-deep snow, despite the fact that the enemy was waiting with guns that rained down on Martinez and his fellow troops. On both sides of the pass, more enemy battalions hid behind the rugged terrain of rocky cliffs. They fired rifles and launched grenades of death.
Still, Martinez forged on—up the path to a fiery hell. The snow crunched beneath his boots. Bullets ricocheted off the rocks with sharp pings that echoed through the hills. Grenades exploded all around him, severing several of his buddies’ bodies from their souls. And still, like a superhero with a protective shield, Martinez marched on. He came upon a nest of five Japanese soldiers who were shooting at his friends, and it just plain hacked him off. With Rambo precision, he took every one of them out. Invigorated, he turned around and shouted at his fellow men to get up and follow. Each arose from his snowy foxhole, and marched toward his voice.
Their determination just infuriated the Japanese! Mad as hell, they opened fire, killing several appendages of the U.S. Army. Martinez and his men ran for cover, digging foxholes in the snow and quickly building forts of imaginary protection. The Japanese launched grenades then, snuffing out the breath of the battalion’s lungs. But the enemy couldn’t touch its heart and soul. Alone, Martinez rose up again. He scaled the pass like a rock climber, gasping for air as he flung his rifle over his shoulder, and hauled his backpack up the mountain. Enraged, he found another battalion, stood and faced them like a man possessed, and obliterated the lot.
Then, he turned and climbed toward the Japanese stronghold—the crest of the mountain pass. The enemy, by now, was wracked with vengeance—to the point of indiscretion. Every Japanese solider abandoned his position, and trained his gun on a single target—Private Martinez.
As Martinez took all fire, and his body was riddled with bullets, the men who owed him their lives stood up and validated his. They gunned down the enemy and took the pass, claiming Attu Island for the Allies, and eventually taking the entire stronghold.
Martinez died that day, but his battalion made sure that his death had not been in vein. He didn’t get to come home from the war. He didn’t get to live the life of his hopes and dreams. But because of his valor, patriotism, and love for his fellow man, many of his buddies did. Because of heroes like Private Joe Martinez, you and I do. And we must never forget.
We must honor his life and his death by treating each other like soldiers fighting the same enermy—like appendages of the same body, rather than lone souls. Then, the deaths of American heroes like Martinez will not have been in vein.
We must never forget.——
Gallico’s article about Martinez, and the accompanying original painting by John Falter, will be on display in the Stalder Gallery of the Falls City Library and Arts Center from November 11th through December 31st. Six other Falter paintings will also hang, in a show titled, “Heroes.”The show opens on Veterans Day, Tuesday, November 11th. Renowned author and speaker Dr. Adrian Lewis, will give a gallery talk at 7 p.m. The gallery opens at 6 p.m. for viewing. The show and gallery talk are sponsored by the Richardson County Arts and Humanities Council, with support from the Richardson County Visitors Committee. The event is free and open to the public. Children must be accompanied by an adult.For more information, contact Christina Wertenberger at (402) 245-6034.