By Emma Graves-Fitzsimmons
Nothing prepared Val Martinez for the icy winter night he landed in Marseilles, France, with the 103rd Infantry Division to prepare for combat in World War II. Martinez would spend more than nine months as a tank commander advancing across Central Europe, but says the first night was the coldest he can remember.
His unit and their German adversaries were both under constant fire as each tried to gain ground on the other, he recalls.
"Once we got going, we spent a lot of time chasing them," Martinez said. "Our outfit was a good outfit."
Valentino Martinez was born in Independence, Kan., to a father who worked in a cement plant and a mother who stayed at home with his five siblings. Martinez’s father was born in Spain, his mother in Mexico.
His family moved to the neighborhood of Indiana Harbor in East Chicago, Ind., when he was about 5 years old because his father thought he could make more money working in a steel mill. The community was made up of other immigrant families from different countries, looking to support their families during the Depression. Even as a young child, Martinez says he noticed how well the different ethnicities got along.
"The beauty was that when we grew up in Harbor, we got along with all ethnic groups with no problems whatsoever," Martinez said. "We didn't have to lock the doors or close the windows at night. It was something that was really outstanding."
Martinez’s mother died when he was 12 years old, so he had to help support the family by working with his father in the steel mill while taking college preparatory classes at Washington High School. He knew he wanted a different life for himself, he says.
"Ever as a youngster, I knew that if I wanted to stay away from the mills, I would have to have an education," Martinez said. "The thing that inspired me was that my dad was a very hard worker and he became a labor foreman ... But I knew that if I was going to better myself, I'd have to have a college education."
Martinez graduated from high school in 1940, but he couldn't afford to go to college. He worked at the mill and took Spanish courses "one class at a time." In 1942, he married Carolina, who’s still his wife today. Six months later, he received a letter in the mail, drafting him into military service.
"Of course I immediately said, 'If you want me, I'm ready,'" Martinez said.
While attending basic training at Camp Claiborne in Louisiana, he took a placement test to see where he belonged. He was told he qualified for training in military intelligence or as an officer.
"I must have scored pretty high since they gave me the option," he said.
He went to intelligence training school at Camp Ritchie in Maryland to learn the skills he’d later use on the battlefield, like analyzing maps and aerial photographs. His military occupational specialty was Intelligence NCO 631.
Just like the neighborhood in which he grew up, the Army was diverse, says Martinez, who recalls everyone working together most of the time. Any tensions that did arise, he tried to ease.
"I got along pretty well," Martinez said. "If there were any ethnic fights, I either told my friends that they shouldn't do that or we'd have to get along -- that we were in one boat, and generally there were no problems after that."
After more than nine months in Europe -- in Northern France, the Rhineland and Central Europe -- they were sent home for a short break, before they were to begin preparing to enter battle in the Pacific. Fortunately, their situation never came to that.
"By the time we were getting ready to start our training against the Japanese, the war ended, which was a great thing," Martinez said.
He was discharged Nov. 9, 1945, at the rank of Sergeant. For his service, he earned a EAME Theater Campaign Medal with three Bronze Campaign Stars, American Theater Campaign Medal, Good Conduct Medal and WWII Victory Medal.
One of the hardest aspects of fighting in the war was that it kept him apart from Carolina, who’d already given birth to two of their children.
"My wife was waiting for me," he said. "She was very glad to see me. We wrote to each other. She told me that half the stuff I wrote in letters was crossed out because I was in intelligence."
When he returned to civilian life, he had to decide what he’d do next, Martinez says.
"I was sent back and I had no idea where money was going to come from or how I was going to support my family," he said. "I came back and told my wife, 'I'm going to college again. I'm going to continue my career.'"
Luckily, the G.I. Bill helped make that come true. Martinez attended Indiana University at Bloomington and majored in Spanish with a minor in English.
"There was the G.I. Bill," he said. "They bought my books, paid my tuition and gave me about 100 bucks a month. I brought my wife and children down the second year and we lived on campus."
Martinez returned to Chicago to work in the steel mills on weekends and breaks to help support his growing family, which now had six children, while his wife worked as a cashier at a local department store. He graduated from the university with honors.
Serving in the military helped him succeed in life long after the war was over, he says.
"The military training I received was very important to me because I was just a young man," Martinez said. "I was quite a naïve young man because I never had a mother and grew up by myself with the help of my dad. It disciplined me."
When Martinez graduated from college, he started working for the Chicago school system. In 1970, he became the first administrator for the bilingual program. Spanish-speaking students were having trouble graduating because of the language barrier so the program sought out teachers who’d work with the students.
Martinez worked for the Chicago Independent School District for 37 years, because he says he believes every young person should be entitled to a good education.
"The staff was now Mexican American and Puerto Rican teachers, which is what the kids needed because they were being held back,'' he said. "In five years, the Hispanic kids were up to par with the other kids and even surpassing them. What was great is that they were doing well in English and when we tested them in Spanish, they were doing as well as the Mexican children in Mexico."
Whether Martinez was serving in the Army or hanging out with other kids in his neighborhood, he always valued diversity. He says he inculcated the importance of diversity and the understanding of “different,” to the hundreds of students and teachers with whom he worked.
"With so many different ethnic groups, we got along so beautifully that it was a wonder," Martinez said. "If people in our society do not have social contact with other ethnic groups, then we're not going to have harmony."
Mr. Martinez was interviewed in Houston, Texas, on May 6, 2003, by Ernest Eguia.