For the fortunate, as we prepare for the holidays, we can be grateful for warmth, for shelter and for blessings of family. If we are doing well enough, we can share something with those who lack all that. If we can, we should.
In Belgium this week the locals are celebrating the 75th anniversary of their liberation from Nazi occupation. The biggest battle that happened in Western Europe near the end of World War II was the Battle of the Bulge. The battle happened through the week leading into Christmas, and this was the Christmas that tens of thousands of American soldiers were fighting for their lives in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium, where Hitler’s legion’s made a last, gasp thrust to try and throw the Allies into the sea, creating a “bulge” into American lines.
It’s on my mind, not just because of the history, but also because of our friends who fought there. Around Labor Day, we lost 101st Airborne Trooper Henry Ochsner at age 96. Ochsner, of California City, fought at the Siege of Bastogne during the battle, and was decorated by Belgium and France. If you never knew about it, the epic HBO miniseries, “Band of Brothers” from Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg shows what happened there. Another Bulge veteran, 82nd Airborne trooper John Humphrey, was wounded on Christmas Eve. Humphrey, of Rosamond, left us at age 95, still “Airborne All the Way.”
I was delighted to hear from Mike Martinez of Quartz Hill that his dad, Adolph Martinez, recently 96, was spending time with his son. Antelope Valley Press columnist Bill Warford introduced me to the elder Martinez, 20 years ago.
Adolph Martinez fought at the Bulge, was taken POW, and like the tough young paratrooper he was, he escaped. Some of the story below is taken from an account he gave in November 2014 at the Palmdale City Library, which arranged for Martinez to share his story where the community room was packed.
The retired school principal, with a head of snow, white hair shared a story like something out of author Paul Brickhill’s “The Great Escape,” a story of survival that played out in the closing days of World War II. Most Americans have heard of the 101st Airborne and 82nd Airborne divisions, the “Screaming Eagles,” and “All Americans.” Fewer heard of the 17th Airborne Division, which fought in the Battle of the Bulge in the coldest winter of 50 years at temperatures of minus-20 degrees.
Martinez was in a fierce firefight at a farmhouse near Flamierge, Belgium. With most of the men from his company dead or wounded, staring down the barrel of a German tank, there was no choice but to surrender. A forced march would take the POWs from the snowy forests of Belgium deep into the collapsing Third Reich. A friend of his fell from the march and was executed on the spot.
Arriving at the prison camp, Stalag IV B, Martinez found himself among 16,000 other POWs, half of them Russians being worked to death. Other Allied prisoners were less abused, “but if you stepped outside the barracks after 7 p.m. you would be shot,” Martinez recalled.
In the prison camp Martinez met another paratrooper, Roy Rogel, a tough guy who drove cabs in New York and Chicago. “He was doing push-ups, and I thought ‘I’ve got to talk to this man,’ and we hit it off,” Martinez recalled. Rogel was an escape artist that the Germans could never quite seem to keep.
Hidden away in the prison camp, a radio run by the POWs caught a BBC broadcast that the Allies were advancing on the German city of Leipzig. The mayor of Leipzig asked for a detail of 500 POWs to clean up the city’s bomb damage.
“We decided to join the group,” Martinez said. They were put on a train to the city about 120 miles distant. When they arrived in Leipzig on April 12, 1945, a few weeks before the end of the war, “We were told, ‘Your president just died.’ ” At first they did not believe Franklin Delano Roosevelt was dead. Informed that they were going to be left in a prison camp to await the arrival of the advancing American forces, Martinez said, “You could hear the artillery in the distance.”
His friend, Roy, he said, had already escaped twice and been recaptured. “They had a hard time holding on to him,” Martinez recalled. Rogel “came to me and said, ‘I don’t think they are going to let us go.’ He had a bad feeling.”
With a pair of jump boots that had steel plates in them, Rogel kicked out a window of the camp armory. Then he was kicking a wooden fence. “Some other guys came up behind me, and they wanted to escape too,” Martinez said. “I said, ‘Wait your turn.’ ” The POWs behind Martinez and Rogel were shot. Moving into the night, wearing their G.I. jackets, the pair got crowded among Germans being directed into the air raid shelter, another possible trap.
“It was really dark in there,” he said. “We were with German soldiers and civilians until the bombing finally ended, but they didn’t see us because it was dark.”
The pair moved off into the night, “and we picked up the North Star, and we headed north.”
Rogel put his tough guy skills to use. He was going to hot-wire a car when they were captured again, this time by old men and boys of the home guard, with weapons trained on them.
The home guards called the regular army to report their capture, but the German army had bigger problems. The escaped from a field hospital, and as Germans fought a rearguard defense an American tank approached.
“We shouted, ‘Americans!’ ” Martinez said.
The American tank commander demanded, “Where are you from?”
“Tujunga!” Martinez shouted back. “In the San Fernando Valley.”
The tank commander replied, “I’m from Alhambra.”
In the days ahead, they were trying to find their own outfit, but not trying too hard. They got lucky again. “We were told that there was an American war correspondent,” Martinez said. “It was John McDermott of the Associated Press. He said your story tomorrow is going to be in the Los Angeles papers and the New York Times … and it was.” That was how his family found out that he had survived.
After the war, Martinez spent 30 years with the Los Angeles Unified School District, teaching and as a principal in his beloved Sunland-Tujunga area. With his wife, Blanche, he raised five children, including Mike.
“We are very proud of our father,” Mike Martinez said.
Merry Christmas, Trooper Martinez, and welcome home. Belgians, Americans, and good people everywhere, are in your debt.
Dennis Anderson served as an Army paratrooper during the Cold War. As editor of the Antelope Valley Press, he deployed with local National Guard troops during the Iraq War. He works on veterans and community mental health issues as a licensed clinical social worker at High Desert Medical Group.