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War & Locale: World War II -- European Theater
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By Anthony Underwood
Just 14 miles south of Waco lies the town of Lorena, Texas --- home to World War II Veteran Ascencion "Chon" Martinez.
Born in Acampo Guanajuato, Mexico, Martinez and his family moved to the United States when he was less than a year old. His father worked in the cotton fields to earn money for the family. Martinez remembers he and his siblings helping their father in the fields whenever possible. While his childhood was a poor one, he insists it was a happy one, full of faith.
Trying to balance work and school for Martinez was no easy task, however. He’s the first to admit he didn’t do as well as he would have liked. Finances were a factor in his limited educational opportunities. His family didn’t have enough money to send him to college, so Martinez enlisted in the U.S. Army during WWII.
Serving in the 546th Anti-aircraft Artillery Battalion, an independent unit of the United States Army, Martinez fought on the front lines throughout Europe -- more specifically, in France, Germany and Austria. As a man of strong Catholic faith, the experiences and sights of war weren’t easy for Martinez to bear; but, he says his faith gave him strength to overcome everything he encountered, including the Nazi concentration camp his unit passed in Germany in 1945.
There, Martinez and his fellow soldiers witnessed the horror of mass graves of people "dead on their feet." Martinez vividly recalls one terrifying image:
"There was a big tree with ... dead bodies over it ... children and adults," he said. "We were too late [to save them], except for the walking skeletons around us."
Martinez says that on another occasion -- one "beautiful, sunny May Day," to be specific -- God's hand guided him through the war.
He and another soldier went for a walk and stumbled upon what seemed to be a camp with shacks and tents. A guard was at the gate, but he didn’t appear to Martinez to be military personnel. They walked through the gate and suddenly, according to Martinez, many young Czech and Polish people came toward them.
"There were children and adults, but mostly young people," he said.
While one of the many girls began to talk with him, he noticed her looking at the guard in worry.
"I decided the guard was threatening her not to talk to me," he said. "I told my friend, who was closest to the guard, 'Disarm that guard, and I'll cover you.' And I got my rifle at ready, and pointed it towards the guard."
Martinez and his fellow soldier accompanied a US Army officer to identify the German guard properly, and discovered he was living with two other members of Hitler's elite Army troops. He clearly remembers the insignia "SS" on their uniforms, and that one of them tried to run away; however, he made the mistake of running in Martinez's direction, not knowing he had that pad guarded.
When the German saw Martinez's rifle pointing at him, he broke down and fell on his knees crying.
Martinez doesn’t know exactly what happened to the people within the fences, but thinks he helped them in some way.
"I believe they would've had a very bad fate if we had not stumbled into that," he said with a tear. "God bless America for being so good to me."
Mr. Martinez was interviewed on March 22, 2001.