By David Muto
Trinidad Martinez remembers the little things.
Like the long list of vegetables he helped his family grow on their ranch in South Texas before World War II broke out.
Thoughts like that punctuate Martinez's recollections of his time at war, during which he endured years of incredible hardship at the hands of enemy combatants and even walked in the infamous Bataan Death March. He seems amused while recalling these smaller, seemingly trivial memories of his youth, as if they've been uncovered for the first time in years.
Born Dec. 24, 1917, in Mercedes - about 40 miles northwest of Brownsville in Texas' Rio Grande Valley - Martinez lived with his six brothers and three sisters as a child. The children worked on the ranch - the boys laboring in the fields with their father, Francisco Martinez, and the girls helping their mother, Juana Garza Martinez, in the house. Living in a town without a schoolhouse, the children took to educating one another.
"[My parents] came [to the United States from Mexico] so that we could have a better life," Martinez said.
At 19, he began delivering harvests to San Antonio. At the time, a year of military service was required of all American males, and Martinez was inducted into the Army five years later, on April 8, 1941.
At basic training in Galveston, Texas, officers worked him and his fellow trainees for a grueling 13 days, virtually without pause - training that would later prove invaluable, Martinez says. He was then sent to El Paso, Texas, where he joined the heavily Latino New Mexico National Guard, which became the 200th Coast Artillery Regiment. The unit was soon deployed to defend airbases in the Philippines, still a U.S. commonwealth, where the Japanese, eyeing Pacific dominance, invaded Dec. 8, 1941 - just 10 hours after their military strike on Pearl Harbor. A battle raged for four months before U.S. forces surrendered in April of 1942.
"We used all that we had," Martinez said. "There was nothing left."
In what historians now call a Japanese war crime, the defeated Americans and Filipinos, already weakened after living on dwindling rations for months, were taken prisoner, forced to march continually for days on end without food or water toward freight cars that would transfer them to internment camps on the island. Soldiers were beaten and executed for pausing or stumbling while marching.
"I never fell, at all" said Martinez, attributing his survival to the techniques he learned in basic training.
But his recollection of what is now referred to as the Bataan Death March, during which historians estimate between 6,000 and 11,000 men brutally died, is brief and without graphic detail.
"In the march, I didn't remember anything," he said.
American soldiers labored in the prisoner camps for months before many of those who survived were sent on crowded "hell ships" to Japan. Martinez traveled for 30 days in the hull of a ship, the Nagato Maru, alongside 1,700 American prisoners, reaching Japan in late December of 1942.
In Japan, Martinez again toiled with fellow soldiers in prison camps. Shoveling coal was one of the many jobs he performed during his 2 \0xBD-year stay on the island.
As American forces led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur advanced in the Philippines in October of 1944, U.S. soldiers prepared for rescue, and on Oct. 12, 1945, Martinez returned to the States, to streets full of cheering Americans holding flags and flowers.
"It was a great welcome," said Martinez, who was honorably discharged Nov. 16 of the same year at the rank of corporal. "I felt very good."
But for Martinez, who was hospitalized upon returning stateside, images lingered. The thousands of miles traveled over sea and land at the hands of enemies had left an indelible imprint on the mind of the 27-year-old.
"For a long time, I didn't think about anything," he said. "It was very difficult."
But a new life slowly began taking shape. For his service, the government awarded him an Army Good Conduct medal, World War II Victory medal, Prisoner of War medal and an Army Presidential Unit Citation, among other accolades. Martinez married Celia Olvera the same year he returned, and, with the help of the GI Bill, studied to become a mechanic.
"Life was very different [after the war]," Martinez said. "People had a different way of living."
He was now residing in a different, better America - one with plentiful jobs and opportunities. After Celia died of heart disease in June of 1969, he and his second wife, Maria Medrano, had four children.
The war still colors Martinez's approach to everyday life. Young people today must recognize that "freedom isn't free; it has its price," he said.
But the images and sounds of the brutal miles traveled in his younger days don't overwhelm his thoughts. He's still able to look back on times before the war, when he and his brothers and sisters helped his mother and father on their ranch, when corn and tomatoes grew in their gardens.
"I am very content and very happy about my life," Martinez said.
Mr. Martinez was interviewed by Erica Martinez in San Antonio on Aug. 4, 2009.
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