This is a reprint of a feature I wrote for the Dayton (Ohio) City Paper a few weeks ago. I know it isn’t about writing per say, but I had such a good response to it that I wanted to share it with a larger audience on this holiday. This is probably the most well-researched piece I’ve ever done, and I hope you like it. Tim Smith.
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A hero is defined as a person who is noted or admired for nobility, courage, or outstanding achievement. Local audiences have the chance to meet a genuine war hero up close and personal on August 27 when the Centerville Public Library presents “From Toccoa to Bavaria: A World War II Experience.”
Jim “Pee Wee” Martin is a veteran of the 101st Airborne Division’s 516th Paratrooper Infantry Division. He is one of the last surviving members of the Band of Brothers. The Dayton native was a 22-year-old machinist who enlisted in the United States Army right after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He quickly took an interest in a new program the Army had developed to aid the war effort.
“When I was five years old I saw my first parachute jump and thought I’d like to do that,” Martin recalls. “When I enlisted, the opportunity presented itself and I took advantage of it. I wanted to be a part of something important. It’s been the most wonderful experience of my life.”
The Division was activated in 1942 and played an integral role in many Allied campaigns. During World War II, Martin jumped into Normandy on D-Day, the Netherlands for Operation Market Garden, and defended Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. Martin recalls that the training the unit received in Toccoa, Georgia was rigorous, but with good reason.
“When they started this thing, it was strictly voluntary,” he said. “6500 people signed up, but by the time we were ready to ship out, there were only 1650 left.”
Martin was the smallest soldier in the unit at 130 pounds and earned the nickname Pee Wee, which he still proudly uses. Due to the arduous training and deplorable conditions, the unit had a 90% attrition rate, and only the elite received their wings at the conclusion of the training.
“Every man that you had there would be there when you needed him,” Martin said. “That’s what the Army wanted, and that’s why they made the training so hard.”
Many wartime adventures have been the subjects of film and television series for years, often with a large amount of poetic license. The exploits of the 101st Airborne were dramatized in the HBO series “Band of Brothers,” which Martin thought was generally accurate.
“The episodes about our time in Bastogne were very well done and in parts, very difficult to view,” he said. “The shelling onto the 2nd Battalion’s positions in the Bois Jacque were literally chilling to watch. The depictions of the constant cold we endured were accurate but the scenes of the shelling we were subjected to were terrible to watch. It’s difficult to believe but when you see men being literally lifted off the ground by explosions in war movies, well…that really happens. I can recall being bounced several inches off the ground by shells.”
Martin has the distinction of having been awarded the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and Distinguished Unit Citation, but he tends to shrug off the accolades he earned during the war.
“That’s not why I did this,” he says. “We did not go over there to rescue people. We did it to join the allies—the Australians and the Canadians—to help the war effort. People were being sacrificed, so we all joined together in the fighting. To me, it was no sacrifice. It was an honor and a privilege to be a part of history.”
Martin spends much of his time traveling and talking about his war experiences. He’s reached more than 22,000 “likes” on his Facebook page, and he’s still an active lecturer at the age of 95. As if that weren’t enough, he celebrated the 70th anniversary of D-Day in 2014 by going for another skydive—when he was 93.
“I didn’t really feel anything different about that jump,” he says. “No adrenaline rush, just a little apprehension. At least this time, there was no one shooting at me.”
He cites the Battle of the Bulge as his most challenging deployment. The regiment parachuted in with three days’ worth of rations but due to inclement weather, it was ten days before the supply line was established.
“What you had was what you went in with,” he said. “We were supposed to fight for three days then be taken out but it was so bad, we ended up staying the entire 33 days. If the British, French and Americans had not fought in this thing together, it would be a whole different world. Once your freedom is lost, it’s very difficult to get it back.”
Martin keeps an active schedule, making personal appearances to tell the Division’s story. He has traveled overseas five times in the past few years, and his audiences don’t always know what to expect.
“I never use a script,” he said. “I never know what I’m going to say when I start talking and I’ll answer any question. I don’t shy away from any topic. I’ve been very fortunate to have had these experiences. I like people who come to my talks to take away one thing—what could have happened if we didn’t go in there?”
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Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author whose book range from romantic mystery/thrillers to contemporary erotic romance. His website is www.timsmithauthor.com.