XENIA, Ohio -- What do the construction of the Empire State Building, Prohibition, the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, the Holocaust, World War II, Vietnam, the first man in space and Sept. 11 attacks all have in common?
All of these events and many more happened in the last 100 years. They also took place during the life of Pfc. Jim. H. Martin, a WWII veteran who celebrated his 100th birthday April 29.
Martin served as a paratrooper in G Company, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, from June 1942 until September 1945, when WWII ended.
Martin marked his 100th birthday with some fellow WWII vets and local community members during a celebration April 23-24 near his home in Xenia.
Originally from Indiana, Martin’s family moved to Ohio in 1931 when an aircraft company his father worked for relocated here.
“We were the only family to move here with the company,” he recalled. “But within a year of moving here, the company went bankrupt and then the Great Depression was on.”
Martin says growing up during that time wasn’t all bad.
“I did have one rule. I could go all day and do whatever you wanted but you had to be home in time for supper,” he said. “We would play ‘Cowboys and Indians,’ go fishing a lot, and spent a lot of time catching frogs, snakes, possums, skunks and things like that.
“We would also go to the fairgrounds and see what all the vendors had set up. Occasionally, we would find a nickel or a dime and that was really big. It was just a wonderful time to grow up.”
People often thought it was odd for Martin to catch skunks, but to him, it was normal. One time, he caught a skunk that wound up having five little ones a week later.
“Someone told the game warden I had them. He came out and said, ‘I understand you have skunks,’” Martin remembers. “I said I did, and I let them run loose around the house in the summer just like the dog and didn’t have one bit of a problem. The skunks even came to bed with me at times, and I would have them and the dog in bed with me.”
Besides unusual hobbies, Martin was also a little different than some other kids in his town because both his parents had college degrees.
“Like everyone else, though, we didn’t have a car,” he said. “We walked a mile to town each day. I didn’t feel any different than everyone else.”
With much of the United States mired in grinding poverty and unemployment, the leaders of his community stepped up.
“About four times a year, we would have a town meeting and dinner at my house with all the people, like the business owners who made the town run,” he said. “They would discuss what they could do to make the town better, not with laws but with common-sense changes to how things were done.”
As Martin got older, he began working just like most American men and women did, including during his time at Kiser High School in Dayton.
“I was working at the tool and dye shop 10 hours a night and going to school,” Martin said. “In my senior year, I worked six nights a week and 13 hours a night, and I went to school all while carrying a grade-A average. I wasn’t stupid; I knew what was going on in the world.”
Originally, Martin had decided he wasn’t going to volunteer for military service because of stories he had heard from World War I vets about their lives after the war. In fact, he had the choice not to go due to a military deferment, but that all changed.
“It was a Monday, and my boss said if I wanted to defer that I could and I’d have the paperwork in hand on Thursday,” Martin recalled. “I said, ‘You’ve been listening to the radio, and you go to the movies on the weekends and see the films about what is going on over there.’ I knew if France and Britain didn’t get some help, they were going to go down, and then (Nazi Germany) would be coming after us.
“We were the only country in the world that could do anything about it.”
With the decision now made, he enlisted in the Army on June 25, 1942, and was selected to become a new type of Soldier known as a paratrooper.
“When I started, our unit was 6,500 people,” Martin said. “But Col. Sink developed what he called ‘Airborne Basic’ during that time. We went from 6,500 people down to just 1,650 people. That’s how tough it was.”
The training for these new paratroopers took place at a remote location about 100 miles northeast of Atlanta called Camp Toccoa.
“It was a pretty primitive base,” Martin said. “It wasn’t even finished for us.”
Just shy of six month after enlisting, on Jan. 3, 1943, Martin had completed all required parachute packing, jumping from a plane in flight and other generalized training to officially become a qualified parachutist.
It was also during this time he earned his nickname, “Pee Wee.”
“I was small in stature and only weighed 106 pounds when I went into the service,” Martin said. “But I told everyone it doesn’t matter what your size, because you’re carrying an M1 rifle just like the rest of us. As long as you have that, it’s an equalizer, and you’re just as good as the big guy.”
After training, Martin and his unit departed U.S. soil from Camp Shanks in New York aboard the RMS. Samaria for England.
“The ship was only supposed to carry 1,000 people, and we had 5,000 on board,” he said. “It took 10 days to go across, and during the trip, we had the biggest storm seen in 50 years.
“We had an arrow on the wall with degrees marked. It was going 45 degrees one way, then another 45 degrees in the other direction.”
According to Martin, he and other men in his unit were on the ship’s top deck during the storm, leaving a 50-foot drop to the water below. Everyone thought they were going to go under.
By June 5, his unit had departed for battle and parachuted down behind enemy lines in France.
“We jumped into Normandy before all the beach forces came in,” Martin said. “Our mission was to knock out all utilities and to kill any enemy we found, which we did.”
Martin said there is something special about paratroopers you won’t find with any other unit.
“There was a lot of familiarity between an officer and his troops in the paratrooper world that you didn’t see in the regular Army. Because when the shelling is happening, you could look over, and 15 feet from you was the colonel,” he added. “With the regular ground troops, the colonel would be way back telling them to go out and do it. But our officer would get up and say ‘follow me’ because rank didn’t matter.
“Everyone knew where the line was and who the boss was, but we all suffered the same fate.”
Life after the war
Life for service members returning from WWII wasn’t all roses, according to Martin and his late wife of 72 years.
Under the law, companies had to rehire troops who fought overseas. But many defied that law and “wouldn’t take us back,” claiming things had changed while they were gone, he said.
“For two years, I didn’t have a job after I came back,” Martin said. “My wife and I nearly starved to death, but then things straightened out.”
Martin’s wife, Donna, taught him over the years to be optimistic.
“If you look at everything pessimistically, your life is going to be miserable,” he said. “Things are not always going to go right. In fact, most things probably won’t, but still, it’s a good life.”
Today, Martin spends time speaking to ROTC units, visiting war sites overseas and engaging in other community service, sharing his life experience to anyone who will listen. It’s during these talks that he insists he is not a hero.
“You’re not a hero when you volunteer for something, when you train for it and you get paid for it, because you’re expected to do it,” Martin said. “A hero is the guy I heard about that put himself at risk to help a car that went into a pond to help the people out of their vehicle. He had no training and wasn’t going to get anything out of it. That’s a hero.”
When speaking, Martin often gets asked if he hated the German enemy troops.
““I didn’t hate them,” he said. “They were fighting for their country just like we were fighting for ours. If you go in hating, it ruins your judgment and you’re going to lose.”
His 100th birthday celebration included a mass parachute jump from three C-47 Dakota aircraft, featuring “That’s All, Brother,” which led the main airborne invasion into Normandy.
“I’m happy here. I’ve got people coming from all over the place, including overseas, to see me all the time,” he said. “The fact I turned 100 doesn’t mean a thing because I don’t feel any different than I did at 30. I just can’t do heavy construction.”
At a century old, Martin offered one piece of wisdom for today’s generation: Just enjoy what we have now.
“We can’t change what is happening. The restrictions we have today are nothing,” he said. “I’ve gone through nine pandemics in my lifetime. The medical care we have in this area is the best in the world.
“I’ve had a wonderful life.”