Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from “Our Veterans,” a book published by The Leader that recognizes military service in the area. Copies are $39 and can be purchased at 2020 N Loop W, Suite 220 or online at theleadernews.com.
His three older brothers fought for the United States in World War II. Henry Martinez wanted to be an American hero like they were, so he couldn’t wait to serve as well.
He couldn’t even wait until he was old enough to legally do so.
Martinez was only 16 years old when he skipped out on attending John H. Reagan High School in the Heights and enlisted in the U.S. Army, which has a minimum age requirement of 17. But it was 1947, well before the time of online databases, and Martinez’s parents signed paperwork that said their youngest son was old enough to join.
So he was sent to basic training in Fort Ord, California, and then to Incheon, Korea, and later to Yokohama, Japan, before going back to Korea, where Martinez served his country in the Korean War.
“It’s the only lie I ever told in my life,” he said.
Martinez, now 88 and a retired glazier who lives in Mangum Manor with his wife, Eva, feels fortunate to have survived when he was a boy fighting against men. He was an Army rifleman from 1948-52 and said he had three “close calls” in combat.
He also considers himself lucky that his secret was never discovered by his commanding officers, because he could have been dishonorably discharged. As he found out near the end of his military career, though, his drill sergeant in boot camp had suspicions.
Martinez said the two crossed paths in Japan, and that’s when he realized why his superior had made his training especially difficult. Martinez had to run more often, and received more verbal abuse, than many of his fellow trainees.
“I asked him, ‘Why did you pick on me so much?’” Martinez recalled. “He said, ‘I figured you were underage. I wanted to kick you out.’”
But by that point, because he had survived, Martinez had earned his fellow soldier’s respect. And fulfilling his role in the line of duty taught Martinez to respect the dangers of war.
He said he came to hate war, which he described as hell.
“I wasn’t one of those brave guys,” he said. “I was eating dirt more than anybody else, to tell you the truth.”
But he followed orders and stayed on the front line when he was told. Martinez also fired shots at the enemy, but he doesn’t claim to have taken any lives.
That’s because he isn’t sure if he killed any enemy soldiers. When he fired shots, it was from long range and along with several other members of his unit.
“Did I hit that guy or did this other guy hit him? I don’t know,” Martinez said. “I would say, ‘No, I didn’t kill anybody.’ In my mind. But more than likely, I did.”
Martinez eventually made it home, but not without scars. He was in sub-zero temperatures and his legs were partially frozen, which has caused problems ever since. He now needs a wheelchair to move around his house.
But for a man of his age, and with his experiences, he considers it a small price to have paid. He says he has no complaints.
“I’m very lucky. Now I thank God,” he said. “I pray to God every night, every day, every morning for the life that he has given me. Because other people, I can turn around and tell you those poor people didn’t make it the way I made it.”
Family of soldiers
Fibbing about his age and going to war were risks Martinez was willing to take, because he was anxious to leave his home in the Heights. He said he faced discrimination as a first-generation American with Mexican heritage.
The same was true during his service, but Martinez eventually made friends with fellow soldiers from various places and backgrounds. And serving in the armed forces was, and has been, just as much a part of his lineage.
Along with his three brothers – Conrado, Jessie and Joe Martinez – he had a cousin, Leonardo Salazar, who died in Japan as a prisoner of war in World War II. One of Henry Martinez’s nephews, also named Joe Martinez, served in the Vietnam War.
His granddaughter’s husband, Salvador Caldwell, was in Iraq. Grandson Michael Elliott is a soldier, too, having recently graduated from Texas A&M and enlisted in the Army.
The family’s introduction to the military started with Martinez’s father. Even though he was born in Mexico, he did not speak English and was not a U.S. citizen, according to his youngest son, Alvino Martinez was drafted in 1918 to serve in World War I.
But the elder Martinez, who worked on a farm in Medina County outside San Antonio, was rejected when he reported for duty as he had lost much of his right index finger in a farming accident.
“He didn’t get in because his trigger finger was cut off,” Henry Martinez said.
But his sons earned their red, white and blue stripes as American soldiers, which has been a great source of pride for the Martinez family. Henry has the memories and memorabilia to prove it.
Much of his home is a shrine to his and his family’s service. On a shelf in a spare bedroom, Martinez has a collection of combat helmets, pistols, canteens, grenades, bullets and a field phone.
He keeps a Korean doll in a glass case on a table in the corner of his living room. In another corner of the room is a collection of medals, scrapbooks and photos, along with three small flags – the American flag, Texas flag and Korean flag – and opposite that is a shelf stocked with military books and more photos.
Martinez has helped organize military days at Houston Astros games, where he’s thrown out a first pitch and met baseball legends such as Craig Biggio and Jimmy Wynn. He also has had brushes with four U.S. presidents – John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
Not bad for a man who never even attended high school, although his three children and 13 grandchildren are all college graduates. Martinez has five great-grandchildren as well.
He credits much of his success in life to his military service, where he learned about respect, learned about the world and learned to speak Japanese.
Martinez wasn’t even supposed to serve – at least not for another year – and he just wanted to be like his brothers.
“It’s very, very important to us,” he said of their service. “We’re proud of what we’ve done. We are proud of being Americans.”