By Tony Cantú
Jose Fuljencio Martinez remembers the minutest details of his tour of duty's defining moment, his unit's surrender at Bataan, recalling virtually every tear and each bead of sweat he shed as he faced his captors.
"I could feel the tears coming down. They would burn. And then a drop of sweat would run down. It would be so cold and all of a sudden it would burn like fire! Like you got a lit match and put it against your skin."
In 1941, he boarded the U.S.S. Coolidge in San Francisco for the Philippines as part of the 200th Coast Artillery. An enlistee in the U.S. Army National Guard in New Mexico, his anti-aircraft unit was activated as war loomed. He saw combat almost immediately, the Japanese hitting the Philippines after bombing Pearl Harbor.
Awaiting orders from superiors, American forces were initially inert.
"Gen. [Douglas] MacArthur ... said all the planes had to be on the ground. 'No firing ... until the first bombs explode. We're not at war.' Well, they had already bombed Pearl Harbor!" said Martinez, his shock undiminished by time's passage.
The men were eager to fight back: "A colonel from the Air Force was crying ... like a baby, 'Let us go up!'"
Securing permission, the colonel dropped a bomb down an enemy ship's smokestack from his aircraft, sinking the vessel. But he had flown too low, engulfing the aircraft in the ensuing explosion aboard the ship. The colonel died, along with crew members shot in mid-air parachuting from the crippled plane.
Martinez was imprisoned 41 months after forcible participation in the Bataan Death March. At three prison camps, he experienced conditions so inhumane he struggles to understand his survival.
Before the war, life had been almost idyllic. The Martinez family even fared relatively well during the Great Depression, thanks to his father's survivalist and agricultural skills.
"He'd show me around the mountains -- what I could eat, what I could not, how to hunt [and] trap, how to survive out in the wild," Martinez recalled.
Born in Mosquero, N.M., Martinez moved to Las Vegas, N.M., after his father, Filipé Martinez, sold his ranch to work for the railroad. But the patriarch longed for the fields, eventually moving the family back to Mosquero, where Martinez graduated high school.
The middle child of five, he supplemented the household income as a ranch hand. In lieu of payment, farmers often offered food.
"They'd give me meat, eggs, milk. In the summertime, I'd take all kinds of vegetables home. So we had enough to eat," the 83-year-old Martinez recalled.
He also vividly remembers his mother, Dionides Montaño Martinez, particularly her generous spirit during the Depression. For example, Martinez would bring home a deer he bagged to provide food for his family, "But not only for the family! My mom would give pieces of meat to neighbors because they didn't have any food,” he recalled. “Oh, mom was the angel of the town."
But at 22, his nightmare began.
Surrendering at Marvelas, he first saw inhumanity during the torturous prison march, witnessing an exhausted comrade's fate.
"He was a big guy, and we carried him for a while there. But he finally says, 'I'm going to sit down.' We begged him not to give up,” Martinez said.
"The Japanese let us stop right there when he sat down, so we could see . . . Wham! There goes the bayonet right through him."
During imprisonment at Camp O'Donnell and Cabanataun, he'd see more brutality before being crammed into a boat en route to Moje, Japan.
Some died along the way.
"It was just a little boat ... like a cork in the water. We were in the filth because of the dead, dysentery and throwing up and everything."
In Hiro-Hata, Japan, he was forced into labor, cleaning and refilling furnaces. The back-breaking work was exacerbated by random beatings, like the day he was ordered to break slag rather than fire the furnace.
"I didn't see this Japanese officer right behind me ... hit me on the back. He put his white glove on and Wham! Wham! Wham! Oh, he was slapping my face!"
Amid brutality, soldiers tried finding humor in such situations. "They thought it was funny the way he had to put his gloves on. Finally, he left. Oh man, we laughed then," Martinez recalled.
Gallows humor was common. Marching in the snow, a fellow soldier whispered how much he hated his issued tobee footwear with its open toe 'because they make my feet sweat.' Looking down, he saw a condition far worse than perspiration: His friend's feet had turned blue from the frigid cold.
"I started to laugh, but a guard was by my side. You try to hold a laugh ... I couldn't get my breath. Once we got to camp, I said, 'Don't ever joke like that.' He almost got me killed. Then we started laughing!"
After nearly four years, Martinez was liberated after Japan surrendered. He earned several combat awards, including the Distinguished Unit Badge with two oak leaf clusters, the Philippine Defense Ribbon with battle star and others.
Martinez struggled in postwar life, finding himself traumatized. Hearing of returning soldiers' deaths -- from diseases contracted overseas or alcohol poisoning after taking to the drink to cope -- he adopted something of a fatalistic attitude, giving up even on the prospect of finding love and domestic tranquility through marriage.
"I had a feeling I wasn't going to last anyway. I was always in the hospital for this and that and the other. I figured if I get married, two or three years later, there's a widow," said Martinez, who instead focused on his job as a cartographer for the U.S. Geological Survey.
Today, Martinez lives in Fort Garland, Colo., where he spends his retirement. Despite war, he considers himself blessed, offering tangible proof of his fortune in his family.
Martinez eventually wound up marrying, finding love with Lorraine Vigil in 1953. The Martinezes have five children: Ken, Marvin, Sandy, Rita and Jeffrey.
"I found an angel as a wife," Martinez said. "We've been happy ever after -- 48 years. I have a wonderful family. We have three boys and two girls. I am more than lucky, thank God. I have my God, family, friends, relatives and neighbors.
"What more could I want? Thank God for all his blessings."
Mr. Martinez was interviewed in Fort Garland, Colorado, on September 1, 2002, by Rea Ann Trotter.
Date of Birth:
Rea Ann Trotter
WWII Military Unit:
No photos available for this record.
U.S. Latino and Latina World War II Oral History Project