Categories: Ending the War
War & Locale: World War II -- European Theater
Date of Birth:
Paul R. Zepeda
By Robert Mayer
Johnnie Marino was working as a tinsmith in Houston, having learned the trade from President Roosevelt's National Youth Administration program, when he heard about Hitler's running amok in Europe.
In October of 1940, when he was 18, Marino signed up for the U.S. Army. At the time, however, those under 21 wishing to serve had to receive written approval from their parents. Marino knew his father would stand in the way, but, not to be deterred, he and a friend went to a recruiting station and lied about their ages, knowing the Army was eager enough for men that military personnel wouldn't bother confirming the enlistees’ statements. Three days later, the two were shipped out to Fort Sam Houston for basic training.
During these pre-war days, however, military personnel weren't viewed favorably by the general populace, Marino said. He recalls seeing a sign in a local restaurant window that said: "No dogs or soldiers allowed." And when on weekend leaves, the men of Fort Sam Houston would wear civilian clothes to avoid hassles. That would quickly change on Dec. 7, 1941, however: As the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, America rallied around its military.
By October of 1943, Marino learned he was off to Europe via New York. He landed in Northern Ireland after a nauseating 14 days zig-zagging across the Atlantic Ocean in a ship trying to avoid German U-boats.
"I swore I'd never get into a boat again," he said.
In Ireland, Marino was quartered in an old castle. He remembers the Irish being quite friendly.
"They took us in like family," he said.
In May of 1944, as D-day approached, the troops were restricted to camp. Barbed wire was strung up and guards were posted around camp. The men were kept busy applying a waterproofing coating to all equipment and clothing in preparation for the invasion.
Then came the big day: Marino was part of the third wave to land at Omaha Beach, assigned to a weapons carrier loaded with 105-mm artillery shells. Approaching the beach, Marino's landing craft was stopped approximately 250 yards short of bare sand, forcing the men to jump into the water and wade ashore. In that region of the English Channel, strong water currents carved out troughs in the ground ranging from three to 10 feet deep, thus, some soldiers, heavily loaded with nearly 60 pounds of equipment, jumped into the water, quickly sank and didn't resurface. Marino said many men were lost in such a manner.
Further adding to the confusion were the Germans perched on bluffs. With their advantageous position, they were easily able to pick off arriving Allied soldiers. Marino saw tracers flying all around him as he approached the beach. Despite men being hit and falling around him, he continued onward.
"They told us, 'If you see someone hit or is laying there, don't stop. If you stop, you're going to be with him,'" he remembered. "We were like sitting ducks."
Eventually, he established a foothold on the beach. His mission was to leave ammunition for the first artillery unit they encountered. That wasn't to be, however, since the artillery units sank in the water, he said.
"I believe the people who made the plans for the invasion never took into consideration the weight of a tank in one of those landing crafts," he said, referring to the Army's attempts at piling two tanks onto a single landing craft.
It was looking rather grim, and that it appeared the Germans would emerge victorious.
"They not only had all the power, but their equipment as far as their machine guns and rifles were far superior to ours," he said.
But with the aid of a steady stream of new troops, the Allies were able to push back the Germans.
Later, in September, Marino and his troops went through an already liberated Paris, marching under the Eiffel Tower on their way to Beligium. There they stayed as the Germans continued to retreat.
But on December 16, the Germans offered their last hurrah, throwing everything they had at the Allied forces. Marino's division was forced to hold off a 60-mile-long front with the help of the new 99th Division, fresh from the States.
"It caught us by surprise," he said. "We didn't expect for them to come with such force. They kept pounding us and drove us back to Belgium. It took a month and 10 days to really hold them and start pushing them back."
It was General Patton's tank division, among other reinforcements, that finally silenced the German's last gasp.
Right after the Battle of the Bulge, Marino's unit was transferred over to Patton's 3rd Army to be used to spearhead the general's "Operation Red Ball Express," which sought to drive the Army right through the middle of Germany, splitting the country in two. Marino's experience in driving heavy trucks during basic training was summoned.
The convoy of trucks drove at night and rested during the day. During one particular rest stop, Marino and his passenger had just jumped down from the truck to stretch their legs when a rocket went screaming through the cab where they’d been sitting only seconds before.
"We were pretty shaken up by that," he said.
At the next stop, Marino was assigned to a reconnaissance unit to scout ahead through the woods for enemy movement. While they didn't find any German troops, they did stumble across evidence of Germany's superior war technology: In a clearing they found a launching pad for the V-2 rockets that made their way to London.
"We didn't have anything like that," he said.
Later, they came across cement sheds that housed German aircraft Marino assumed were still being built since they lacked propellers. The group soon learned, however, that the Germans had developed a prototype jet, which they never used because of fuel shortages resulting from Allied bombings of German refineries.
Marino was then among the Allied troops who discovered the Jewish concentration camps Hadamar and Belsen, which he said were dubbed "The Murder Factory." Alongside the first camp ran a deep ravine 50 to 100 feet in length filled with dead bodies piled on top of each other.
"The Germans were in such a hurry to leave they didn't have time to cover them," Marino said.
Driving toward additional concentration camps, he noticed dust flakes falling on their clothing, helmets and the hoods of their jeeps. Uncertain of its source at first, he then observed a tall chimney: It was the falling ash of burned Jewish prisoners.
Marino was in Pilzner, Czechoslovakia, on May 8, 1945, when the war was declared over. For the next week, the town streets were filled with celebration, and he knew he’d eventually be sent back to the States. But with the memories of the boat trip across the Atlantic still haunting him, not to mention his fear of flying, he was motivated to ask for re-assignment in Europe. His superiors obliged, placing him in another division located in a German town. For the next five months, he served as a guard, checking the official documents of German citizens trying to return. He said he caught a lot of former concentration camp guards trying to sneak back in with forged papers.
"Finally, a colonel came by and said, 'look, you've been through a lot, but you've gotta go home,'" he said, adding he later returned to the States.
Marino married his first wife, Mamie Cavazos, in October of 1945, and later married Josephine Gonzalez in 1965. He has five children: Gloria, Esther, John, Jon and Jason. He worked as a truck driver and eventually a supervisor of South West Freight, Inc. until his retirement.
Mr. Marino was interviewed in Houston, Texas, on May 22, 2001, by Paul R. Zepeda.