GREENVILLE — World War II veteran Jim “Pee-Wee” Martin told tales of his exploits in the service during a special appearance at Henry St. Clair Memorial Hall Saturday afternoon. The event was organized by employees of the Greenville Public Library.
One of the last surviving WWII paratroopers, Martin, age 97, now lives in Sugar Creek, near Xenia, in a house he built with his wife after leaving the service. His doctors have approved him to go parachuting one last time, but he’s not sure whether his wife will allow it.
“The docs all say, ‘If it was us, we wouldn’t do it,’” Martin said. “‘But we know you’re going to do it anyway, so go ahead.’”
When asked if he was afraid of getting hurt, Martin gave an emphatic no.
“Would you rather die that way,” Martin said of parachuting, “or linger for years with cancer? Do I worry about dying? Not in the least. That’s part of life.”
Martin said he was happy with the life he’s lived so far.
“I’ve had a stupendous life,” he said. “I’ve had the opportunity to do things that other people will never have the ability to do.”
At the same time, Martin stressed that talks like the one he gave on Saturday are not about glorifying himself.
“This is not about me personally,” Martin said. “I’m no different than anybody else. I’m a symbol. This is about the history.”
Martin was a member of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, 3rd Battalion, G Company, from 1942 to 1945. He and his fellow infantrymen went through intense training at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, where the 506th was formed. Known as the “Toccoa Originals,” they were the inspiration for the book and HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers.”
Martin told some amusing stories about his time at Camp Toccoa, mostly revolving around the camp’s commander, Colonel Robert Sink. In one instance, Martin said, Sink called the group together and told them he’d gotten a talking-to from a Congressman who’d received a letter from the mother of one of his troops, alleging that he’d been treating them badly.
“If another Congressman comes to see me,” Sink allegedly told his men, “the man responsible for it is going to wish he was never born.”
“We hated Col. Sink,” Jim Martin said at Memorial Hall over 75 years later. “We never stopped to think that he wasn’t there to baby us. He was there to make men out of boys.”
After finishing training, Martin and his comrades crossed the Atlantic on a British cruise ship that had been converted to a troop transport. Built to carry a thousand people, the ship now carried 5,000, many suffering from dysentery as a result of the dirty, cramped conditions and rancid food.
“You can imagine what that was like,” Martin said.
On June 6, 1944, Martin’s team parachuted over Normandy and touched down in enemy-controlled territory behind Utah Beach. They fought for 43 days as part of the Normandy campaign before moving on to invade Holland, fending off Nazi fighters during the Battle of the Bulge, and finishing off by taking Berchtesgaden, site of Hitler’s “Eagle’s Nest” redoubt in the German Alps.
“The only good thing that came out of that was we liberated one-third of Holland,” Martin said. “And those people had been under the German boot for five years.”
Martin again stressed that his intent is to preserve history, not to portray himself or his fellow soldiers as mythical figures.
“We weren’t heroes,” Martin said. “We were trained, and we volunteered for that training, and meager as it was, we were paid for it. Police and firemen – they’re the same way. Some people are drawn to that kind of service. We don’t think much about them until we need them, but they’re always there, serving.”
In the end, Martin stressed that he wasn’t ashamed to talk about any element of his service, nor would remembering the trauma cause him to become upset or trigger a flashback.
“I don’t feel guilty about anything we did,” Martin said. “We were the tip of the spear, as they called it, and we did the hard, dirty work that came along with it.”
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