Porfirio Escamilla Martinez

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By Yazmin Lazcano

The experience of stepping over hundreds of bodies -- the sounds of mine blasts, surf pelting the coast and bullets whizzing overhead filling his ears -- is as vivid to Porfirio Martinez today as it was 55 years ago.

For Martinez, WWII isn’t over. He fought in major battles, and continues fighting today through nightmares of the D-Day landings.

Martinez recalled the 'tiradero' (the mess) of thousands of bodies on the beach during the second wave of D-Day landings.

"Dead. All dead," he said.

He remembered feeling -- not seeing -- bullets speeding by all around him. He could still see the bodies of dead soldiers being stacked one on top of the other in the back of long trucks.

Today, Martinez lives in a house that is part of a vibrant East Austin neighborhood; the sounds of children playing in the street and an ice-cream truck in the distance mold themselves harmoniously with the atmosphere. A rocking horse and bicycle, reserved for the amusement of Martinez's many grandchildren, are on either side of the pathway leading to the front door. In the comfort of his home, he spoke with a tapering voice and a faraway look in his eyes. His son, Luis Martinez, and his wife, Naomi Perez-Martinez, listened intently during the interview, which was conducted mostly in Spanish.

Now 87, Martinez shared his memories about his life and times in the 99th Chemical Mortar Battalion in World War II. The chemical mortar was a revolutionary weapon in WWII. It was a favorite among soldiers because it was versatile and had a long range: It could potentially hit targets 3,800 yards away. American mortar shells averaged 26 pounds, with roughly 7 pounds of chemical agent; the launcher weighed around 40 pounds. Even after three years of battle, Martinez's only wound was when a launcher hit his shin as he was lowering it from a truck in Algiers, Algeria.

Martinez was born Sept. 15, 1913, to Fernando and Rafaela Escamilla-Martinez in Round Rock, Texas. His father was a laborer in Esperanzas, Mexico, before he met his mother, who was born in 1893, in McNeil, Texas, then a small town near Austin, now a part of Austin. Neither parent went to school, but his mother learned to read and write English on her own. Martinez, the oldest of four, was the only one of his brothers and sisters to serve in the U.S. military. All of the Martinez children attended Round Rock elementary up to the 3rd grade.

Martinez left the classroom to join his father in the rock quarries of Round Rock during the Great Depression. The memory of an utter lack of employment during the harsh 1930s still lingers in his mind.

"There wasn't any work, everything was in depression, everything, everything ..." he said.

Like so many other Mexicanos, Martinez had to fight discrimination as well as unemployment during the depression. He recalled having to enter restaurants in Austin and Round Rock through back entrances.

Martinez later found a job in Jaime's Spanish Village, starting out as a dishwasher and working his way up to first cook. He was working at Spanish Village when the war broke out and he was drafted.

After training in Galveston, Texas, Martinez, who’d never traveled outside Texas before in his life, would spend the next three years in Northern Africa and Europe participating in the war.

The 99th Chemical Mortar Battalion began its European campaign by securing the port cities of Oran and Algiers in Northern Africa, in what is known as "Operation Torch." After successfully securing these cites for the Allies, the battalion continued on to France, Italy, Poland and, finally, Germany.

Martinez recalled passing through a concentration camp in Poland and seeing the long barracks used to house the prisoners. He made a criss-cross motion with his hands to depict how the charred bones of Jewish prisoners were stacked up high.

"They would burn the bones of the Jewish prisoners and then take out the bones and stack all of them up there," he said.

He recalled setting entire villages ablaze with the white phosphorous burn of the chemical mortars. He and his partner would exchange places loading and firing the 4.2-inch mortar because of the constant ringing effect detonations had on their ears. The price of being an ammunition bearer for three years was massive hearing loss. Despite the help of hearing aids in both ears, Martinez needed questions repeated during the interview because he couldn't hear well.

Martinez also recalled German soldiers being gunned down after emerging from snow-covered foxholes 5-feet deep. When the end of the war was declared in Germany, German soldiers came down from the hills and American soldiers stripped them of any valuables before taking them as prisoners of war, he said.

Martinez was discharged on Oct. 7, 1945, at the rank of Private First Class. In 1946, he married Naomi Perez, whom he’d known before the war, and together they had seven children. He continued his work as a cook at La Fiesta restaurant in Austin for 20 years.

When asked if relations between Mexican Americans and Anglos were better after the war, Martinez said they’d improved. Even though Mexican Americans could now enter establishments through front entrances, they still faced discrimination once inside. Martinez remembers the hostile environment in one of his favorite restaurant/bars on 6th street, where Anglos would incite fights with Mexican-American customers. He fondly remembered the owner, however, who would quickly halt any trouble.

"He was a good man. He didn't discriminate," Martinez said.

Martinez also faced discrimination in veteran hospitals where he sought medical treatment. Luis Martinez sounded resentful as he repeated phrases found in his father’s medical documents, like "General findings: A short stocky Mexican ..." The elder Martinez just chuckles about it and shrugs his shoulders.

Martinez told his story, which includes the hardships of the Great Depression and World War II, without embellishment or resentment, exuding an attitude of "that's life."

Today, Martinez says he gives thanks to God that nothing happened to him while he was overseas.

"God helped me so that nothing happened to me," he said.

Mr. Martinez was interviewed in Austin, Texas, on October 15, 2000, by Yazmin Lazcano.