Humble yet historic: Local soldier helped win war at D-Day and beyond

James “Pee Wee” Martin is one of a band of brothers who helped bend the arc of history, beginning on D-Day 70 years ago today.

During World War II, Martin participated in several pivotal battles.

As a member of the 101st Airborne Division, known as the “Screaming Eagles,” he parachuted into Normandy on June 5, 1944, one of the first American forces to land.

Four months later, he and his unit were part of the British-led Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands and Germany, and was part of the 101st-led defense of Bastogne, Belgium, stopping the German army’s last-ditch attempt to split Allied forces in the Battle of the Bulge.

He also saw action in Germany, liberating a concentration camp and seizing Adolph Hitler’s Bavarian home, known as the Berghof, in April 1945.

Seven decades later, Martin is a trim 93-year-old veteran, sitting on the porch of the home he and his wife, Donna, built 68 years ago atop a hill in a secluded corner of southwestern Greene County. He considers himself a “country bumpkin” far removed from his youth as a serviceman fighting for his country.

For the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the newspaper has been revisiting the heroism of what many have called the “Greatest Generation.”

Martin was one of more than 150,000 Allied troops — from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Free France, Norway and elsewhere — who landed on Normandy on June 6. Several world leaders, including President Barack Obama, are in France today to commemorate the historic day.

Martin is also in Normandy today, a trip he has made in past years, for a planned reunion with fellow surviving “brothers.” On Thursday, he re-enacted his parachute jump with a tandem jump with other veterans onto Utah Beach, Normandy.

Despite his contributions and close calls — he watched many close friends die and he narrowly escaped death countless times throughout his two-year tour of duty in Europe — Martin doesn’t consider himself a hero, though he was awarded two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star. Although he’s not opposed to honoring veterans, he doesn’t feel that he should get special recognition or treatment for his service to his country.

“When you live in a country like ours, it’s your duty to protect that country, whether you agree with it or not,” he told the newspaper in 2006.

Caring for family, country

When he came home at the end his tour of duty, his goal was to settle down and live a quiet life.

“I’ve been there and I’ve done that,” Martin said. “All I cared about was getting a job to take care of my family and building a house on 50 acres and forgetting the world.”

It didn’t quite work out that way. Martin served with planning and zoning boards in Sugarcreek Twp., and as time passes, he is increasingly recognized for his role in the country’s deadliest war that killed more than 291,000 service members between 1941 and 1946.

"He is quite a character," said Doug Barber, a history teacher at Watts Middle School in Centerville, who has dedicated a website and a YouTube channel to preserving Martin's place in history. Barber works also with Martin on his Facebook page: "Jim 'Pee Wee' Martin."

In the weeks leading to the 70th anniversary of D-Day, news crews swarmed over Martin’s property off Stewart Road. A national CBS News crew recently spent four hours with him documenting his story.

Barber said Martin is uncomfortable with the attention. But he believes Martin understands it.

“He’s certainly aware of the historical significance of what he’s participated in,” Barber said.

“He’s willing to talk about World War II,” said Mike Seiler, a former Sugarcreek Twp. trustee, who has known Martin for three decades. “He will tell you a hundred times he doesn’t consider himself a hero. He did the job, because he enlisted to do it.”

Martin speaks about his war experiences in a way some veterans will not, said Barry Tiffany, township administrator. Some veterans want to put the war behind them, but Martin shares his experiences, he said.

“I admire his ability to do that,” Tiffany said.

One of the first soldiers in Normandy

Pfc. “Pee Wee” Martin — he earned his nickname by being the lightest soldier in his regiment — parachuted into Normandy after midnight on June 6 with the 101st’s 506th parachute infantry regiment, 3rd battalion, Company G, making him one of the first Allied soldiers to step foot in France in the D-Day invasion. His unit’s mission was to take and hold a pair of newly built bridges to prevent Germans from reinforcing troops on Utah Beach.

Unfortunately, communication equipment was lost on the jump, and communication was initially impossible. Division officers thought the paratroopers had been killed, Martin said. On the third day, division ordered the bridges bombed.

“When they ordered those planes to come over, we were still there,” Martin said.

One soldier was killed in the resulting “friendly fire.”

“Friendly fire happened everyday over there,” Martin said. “No one thought a thing about it.”

He moved on to other missions. In his battalion there were 535 men when he first jumped. In 33 days, 75 men were captured and 93 killed, he said.

Battle of the Bulge

He took part in the ill-fated Operation Market Garden, an Allied attempt to go north around the German Siegfried Line. Supply problems, bad weather and surprisingly stiff resistance conspired to delay and endanger Allied troops.

Martin’s unit was in place for days, unable to move in daylight, “doing nothing,” he said.

“Compared to Normandy, it was nuts,” Martin said of Market Garden. “It was bad.”

He called fighting in Normandy overall “savage and barbaric,” pitting relatively fresh but inexperienced Allied paratroopers against battle-hardened Axis troops. There was an expectation that Germans “would kill all the prisoners,” making fighting all the more urgent, Martin said.

He was present at another crucial moment, the Germans’ last-ditch bid to push to the English Channel, in what came to be popularly known as the Battle of the Bulge.

In the days before the December 1944 battle, Martin said he and his fellow soldiers had turned in most of their weapons in preparation for returning to the United States and perhaps, from there, to the Pacific.

Fighting for the ‘last man’

Then the Germans broke through along an 80-mile front in the Ardennes Forest.

“At about four o’clock in the morning, 4:30, our sergeant came in and said, ‘Get up, there’s been a breakthrough, we’re going on a mission,” Martin recalled.

Martin said he told him: “We’re not going anyplace. We don’t have any weapons.”

He soon found himself in the icy fog around the Belgian town of Bastogne, facing a German siege, with Americans outnumbered five to one. Christmas dinner was “lemon powder and snow,” he said.

“We were told to stay there to the last man,” Martin said.

Tiffany has known Martin for nine years.

He said Martin has been an active participant in local government for nearly all life. For years, he has attended nearly every trustee meeting, Tiffany said. Indeed, a look at meeting minutes online shows Martin’s name appearing again and again.

“He’s always vocal in a very good way,” he said. “He participates. He doesn’t just sit idly by, and that seems to be the way he lived his life.”

Martin says he has been privileged to know “people in high places” — generals, French military officials and many others. He appreciates the attention.

“The things and the places don’t impress me,” he said. “What impresses me, what I like, are the people that I know.”

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