MERRILLVILLE — During his seven years at the East Chicago orphanage, Lou Martinez remembers, the German nuns were strict disciplinarians. “They had their ruler, and their ruler spoke to us.” His knuckles did plenty of listening. Later, when he joined the Army, he found discipline was strict there, too.
“The Army was very disciplined. You never talked back,” he said.
The discipline was important to men sent off to fight the enemy during World War II. Why else would soldiers willingly put themselves in harm’s way?
Martinez, 92, of Merrillville, remembers why he enlisted.
“I was freezing on the job I was on because we were working outside a lot” at U.S. Steel. So he shipped off to Camp Swift in Texas and then spent time in Louisiana getting toughened for war.
Martinez remembers seeing a farmer near that Louisiana swamp who told him, “I wouldn’t sleep out here for $10,000. I’ve killed rattlesnakes three to four feet long out here.”
That wasn’t the biggest danger Martinez would face.
Heading to Europe
After Louisiana, he and his fellow soldiers boarded a train. The destination was secret, because “loose lips sink ships,” in the vernacular of the day.
“We had no idea where we were going,” Martinez said, but when the train was heading for New York, they realized they were headed to Europe to find the Germans.
He boarded a converted Italian cruise ship that was used to ferry troops to Europe. Martinez slept by the kitchen and could smell garlic all the way to Liverpool.
Martinez landed on the beach in Normandy, about two months after D-Day. “A lot of destroyed vehicles littered the beaches because they didn’t have time to clean it up yet,” he said.
Plenty of action
He was in the Battle of the Bulge, making a dramatic entrance when reinforcements were needed. The truck drivers drove all night through a snowstorm to get there. One truck overturned into a ditch.
Some 20,000 Allied troops were taken prisoner during that battle.
Martinez, however, didn’t realize where he was. “All we did was fire our guns, our howitzers.”
Those howitzers were big, firing “small bombs” that weighed nearly 50 pounds each, Martinez said.
There were some close calls when he was under attack, including once when a shell landed 3 feet from him. “Well, prayer time,” Martinez said. That attack lasted for about five minutes.
Martinez said he doesn’t remember being cold, but he was entrenched — literally. When his unit stopped to fight, they dug foxholes, went to a nearby farm for straw and lined the pit with straw for insulation and comfort. They removed the doors off the farmhouse and used that for a sort of lid over the foxhole and then covered the doors with more soil.
At one point, his unit finally reached the Rhine River and had to stop because the Germans had blown up the bridges. “We were just firing right over the river,” Martinez said, until American forces built a pontoon bridge.
“Then it was just go, go, go, no resistance,” he said. The German Army was in disarray. The German soldiers were disoriented and didn’t know where to go.
Martinez took 18 of them prisoner by himself. The traded their medals and belt buckles for water.
He saved their weapons and other loot in a duffel bag, but it got lost, so some of those valuable souvenirs were gone. He had others, though.
After the war
When Technician Fourth Grade Martinez came home from the war, he wanted to pursue a career in baseball. When that didn’t pan out, he coached Little League baseball teams. He put a baseball in his son’s hands as soon as he was big enough to hold one.
When Martinez’s professional baseball dreams didn’t pan out, he went for additional schooling.
“I don’t care what you were interested in, your occupation, they had a school for it,” he said.
He couldn’t keep up with the math for television repair, so he went to auto body repair school. Until he retired, he repaired auto body frames.
He never forgot what he learned during the war.
When the World War II memorial was dedicated, his daughter made sure he was there. It was an honor for him and the other veterans of that war who attended.
“Man, those people were approaching me like I was General Ike,” he said.