Just a glance at government data on the men and women who fought World War II can catch your attention in an instance. It’s a sad and melancholy wake up call learning that of the more than 12 million Americans who fought history’s bloodiest war, only a million still survive---about eight percent of the total force. Most of them are 90 or older and that number shrinks by the day.
This greatest generation is now a fading sliver of the fighting force that saved the world. Soon, it will be history. On average, says the government, about 550 old soldiers, marines or sailors die each day. Ernie Martinez---Master Gunnery Sergeant Ernie Martinez---was among this amazing fighting force. He passed away last summer at age 96 and now rests alongside his counterparts at Denver’s Fort Logan National Cemetery.
“Ernie loved talking about his time in the service,” recalled Luke Martinez in a recent conversation. Martinez is the nephew of Sergeant Martinez. In a way, Martinez is also the curator of his uncle’s amazing legacy. And, as he said recently, what a story it is. “Uncle Ernie lived one incredible life and I was blessed to hear his stories.”
His service stretched from the early days of WWII to Korea to Viet Nam. His memories also included stops in places in between wars and whose names are long forgotten. He served his country and traveled the world, more than 60 countries in all. But it all began in the early days of the ‘big war.’ “He signed up five or six weeks after Pearl Harbor.”
But it wasn’t just Martinez who answered the country’s call. His siblings---including his sisters---also stepped up. All tolled, eight Martinez siblings wore the uniform in WWII. Brother, Ray, joined the Army, John and Fermie, too. Brother Paul chose the Navy. Sisters Mary and Margie also served. Three of the siblings are today interred at Fort Logan.
As Martinez recalled, his uncle’s peacetime travels also included “a lot of goodwill and diplomatic assignments.” But, when war happened, “he was right in the middle of it.”
As WWII wound down, Martinez was part of a force set to invade Japan. But before any landing could take place, something happened. The U.S. bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Instead of fighting for a beachhead, the young Marine found himself in Nagasaki as part of a policing group. The city was flattened. “Sobering, devastating,” were the words Martinez used to describe what his uncle witnessed and shared with him.
“Survivors were hiding,” said Martinez remembering the story his uncle shared. Only children, the story went, were coming out. Parents were not sure of what might happen. “There was no more war.” Dazed, confused, hungry are what he saw in the survivors. “They gave them food and water.” Martinez and his fellow Marines also saw firsthand what an atomic bomb had wrought. “Burns and everybody was sick.” Martinez said he saw his uncle’s eyes well with tears as he recounted his memories. “It was truly awful what he saw.” Emotion was not part of his uncle’s makeup. But it was when he retold the story.
As time went on for ‘Uncle Ernie,’ he rose in rank. World War II was over, so too, Korea and suddenly he found himself in his third war. This time Viet Nam. It was there that something almost surreal took place.
The veteran enlisted man learned that his little brother---born when he was away in the Pacific theater---was also a Marine and also in Viet Nam. Two brothers in the same war was just not something he could live with. By this time, he’d earned enough clout to do something about it.
Big brother learned of his sibling’s location, used his contacts, pulled a few strings and got him out of the jungle. My dad, said Martinez, wasn’t too happy about it. “You’re denying me what I want to do,” he told his brother. In the end, the protestations did little and in days “he was evacuated out and reassigned.”
While his uncle did his duty and climbed the enlisted ranks’ ladder, he never saw glory in war, said Martinez. In fact, he stressed, the entire Martinez brood believed their service to country was done so that no one else would have to go to war. “I served and hopefully you never have to,” was the family mantra.
Uncle Ernie finally called it a day and retired from the Marines Corps in 1975. He had maxed out on promotions. There was nothing else to prove. But his service was reflected on his chest. When he retired, the medals he wore---Meritorious Service in Thailand, Joint Service Commendations, Joint Military Advisory Group and more---made his jacket a multi-colored tapestry. He wore them with pride.
He died last June four years shy of 100. At his funeral and burial at Fort Logan, both enlisted and officer ranks were well represented. They came to say goodbye to a warrior who gave everything his country asked and more. As the bugler played the melancholy notes of ‘Taps,’ a family wept, a country solemnly said ‘Thanks.’
Martinez said Uncle Ernie and his kid brother, William, who passed away in 2013, along with other siblings, are buried within a short distance of one another.