As people gather for the Fourth of July holiday weekend, no doubt a few will sing along with Martina McBride; a few will watch fireworks; a few will grill hotdogs; a few will remember July 4, 1776, and they will remember the scores of men and women who have fought since then to ensure that July 4 continues to mean something more than just the 185th day of the year.
Somervell County has seen many sons and daughters serve in the United States Armed Forces. J.D. Martin, 85, is one of the many county veterans.
Martin’s military career began in 1943 when he enlisted after the United States joined the Allies. He signed up for the Army Air Corp, which later became the Air Force, and wanted to be a fighter pilot.
After going through basic training in Fort Seal, Okla., the Army told Martin he wasn’t a candidate for cadet school because he was colorblind. Still wanting to get in the air, Martin decided to be a tail gunner.
As he prepared to deploy, he married his sweetheart, whom he still calls “Sugar.” Martin and Nan were married May 28, 1943, three days before he went overseas on May 31.
His first mission was over Hamburg, Germany in July 1943. A month later, his crew was sent to bomb a ball bearing factory. But they were shot down over Germany before they reached their target.
The plane was struck three times with one shot hitting in front of Martin’s tail gunner position.
Martin recalled that the plane went into a flat spin before he was blown out of the plane by an explosion. He lost consciousness on the way down and when he came to, Martin said he was stuck between two trees, his ripcord still in his hand.
“I was blown out of the plane and unconscious,” Martin said. “I was burned around my neck and face but my feet were frozen.”
He would later learn that out of the 10 crewmembers, four were killed, two (including himself) were blown out of the plane, and four managed to bail out.
Battered, bruised and injured, Martin tried to make his way to a clearing that he thought was France. But when he got there, he found German soldiers. They called for an Alpine soldier, who took Martin to his home.
Martin said the soldier and his family tried to give him food, but he refused to eat, thinking they had poisoned it. Finally, the family would take bites out of the food before giving it to Martin to show it was safe to eat. They also asked him to talk with their daughter in English.
“I thought they wanted to interrogate me, but they just wanted someone to teach their daughter English,” Martin said.
Eventually, Martin was taken to Frankfurt and in Novembr 1943, he was transported by train to a POW camp in Austria. For the next 20 months, that was home.
Nan recalled receiving that first little yellow telegram on Aug. 22, 1943 from the Department of Defense, telling her in concise words that her husband was Missing in Action (MIA) as of Aug. 12.
“After he was reported missing, I didn’t want to hear it [war coverage] over the radio,” Nan said. “I couldn’t watch movies that showed planes shot down.”
One month later, on Sept. 14, another telegram arrived. This time, it told Nan that Martin was officially a Prisoner of War (POW).
Martin said the men slept two to a bunk, stacked three beds high. Each bunk shared a single blanket.
Rations often included meals of potato peel soup and water. Martin said hot water was a luxury and often doled out only when the Red Cross made a visit.
Because of the cramped conditions, Martin said the men were routinely deloused and kept their heads shaved to avoid getting fleas.
“We played cards and tried to stay busy,” Martin said.
They also kept journals. The YMCA would send books with blank pages to the prisoners as part of care packages. Martin used his damaged flight suit to make a protective cover for his POW journal.
His journal, still in remarkable condition, is filled with memories of moments, men and emotions.
The yellowed pages carry poetry Martin wrote of his wife back home, names of fellow POWs, character sketches reflecting the prisoner’s daily life and attitude towards their captors. He even kept a detailed list of every piece of mail he received in captivity. It’s an amazing artifact of a time often lost among the pages of history books.
But the harsh conditions of the POW camp wore on the men, including Martin.
Standing at 5’10,” Martin said he went in weighing about 190 pounds, and came out of the camp at 110.
His wife Nan recalls seeing him again after he was rescued.
“He wasn’t a chubby little fellow anymore,” she said.
Martin said during his last few weeks of captivity, and the waning days of the war, he and his buddies were moved from the camp and marched around the countryside for 17 days to avoid being recaptured by the Russians.
“There were 4,500 prisoners in my area when the war was over,” Martin recalled.
They were rescued on May 5, 1945.
On May 22, 1945, Nan received another telegram, this time stating that Martin was “returned to military control” - he was no longer a POW.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 130,201 service personnel were captured during WWII. Of those, 14,072 died as POWs and 116,129 were eventually returned.
“It was hard to readjust when I came home,” Martin said. “I had a fear of being around women; I hadn’t been around one for nearly two years.”
But he stayed on with the military, retiring as a Chief Master Sergeant on Aug. 1, 1962.
He continued to fly as a tail gunner, working in a B-17, B-29, B-32, B-36 and B-52 by the time he retired. He was bestowed with many medals and awards for his valor and service, including the Purple Heart, Air Medal and Commendation Medal.
“I enjoyed all my years in the service except the two years in POW camp,” Martin said. “I felt like it was an honor to serve the country.”