Over the Hill

A local war hero’s link to the stars

Retired Marine Master Sgt. Joe Martinez grew up in San Miguel. Two weeks ago, I wrote about his early life. I left off in June 1950, when he graduated from Paso Robles High School and joined the Marine Corps — just days before the Korean War began.

The Marines trained him in airborne reconnaissance and shipped him to Korea. During one battle, a large Chinese force almost overran his unit. (China was fighting on North Korea’s side.)

Just then, a low-flying Marine jet roared over, dropping napalm bombs on the Chinese. Napalm is jellied gasoline that burns with intense heat. It landed close enough to singe the Marines’ hair and beards, but they didn’t mind — they had survived an onslaught.

A Marine jet pilot who flew close air support for them that day was John Glenn. He later became an astronaut and a U.S. senator.

It was in Korea that Martinez earned his first Purple Heart, the medal that signifies a battle wound. He said he also “banged up” his legs making a parachute jump and had to transfer to tanks.

In 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, and Joe Martinez was a gunnery sergeant assigned to recruiting duty in New York City. Glenn was honored with a ticker-tape parade through Manhattan. His driver was Gunnery Sgt. Martinez. Glenn gave him an autographed photo containing a personal thank-you note for his help.

In the Vietnam War, Martinez led a platoon of five tanks. He was wounded three more times and had lengthy hospital stays in Japan and the Philippines.

He also saved lives with tanks when a huge ammunition depot caught fire, setting off continual explosions. Eight Vietnamese civilian employees and 35 Marines were pinned down in bunkers within the ammo depot.

Martinez led two tanks into the chaos. Shrapnel rained on the tanks, explosions rocked them, their steel armor radiated heat. The tanks drove up to the bunkers so the trapped men could crawl under them and enter through the tanks’ bottom escape hatches. It took six trips, but all were rescued.

Martinez retired from the Marines in 1972 and returned to the trade he’d learned as a teenager in San Miguel — plumbing. First he worked for contractors in Oakland, then for the state at Camp Roberts, at Atascadero State Hospital and in state prisons.

He and his late wife, Susan, had two children, and he now has four grandchildren. He lives in Manteca.

Master Sgt. Joe Martinez, thank you for your service.

Contact Phil Dirkx at phild2008@sbcglobal.net or 238-2372.