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Joe Martinez: Once a Marine, always a Marine
Pride of duty and love of country is no less today for longtime Mantecan Joe Martinez, 78, who served as a tank platoon leader in the U.S. Marine Corps in Korea and Vietnam.

Sitting at the kitchen table interviewing the retired master sergeant, it was clear that the former tank platoon leader was someone who had given his all in his devotion to country - serving in both Korea and Vietnam.

It was a humbling experience to observe a man whose love for his country is second to none and whose character continues to emulate the U.S. Marine Corps standards.

On the walls of his home are portraits of his daughter Misty and son Joseph.  Grandchildren - three boys and a girl - are all prominently displayed in a family portrait from Texas.  

After first being part of  a Marines forward reconnaissance unit, he was transferred to tanks after suffering severe injuries to his legs.

In 1969 Martinez served with the First Tank Battalion of the First Marine Division in Vietnam where their motto, “We dare!,” saved  nearly four dozen lives during a major ammunition dump fire and explosions  three miles south of DaNang.

The fire and related explosions in the dump had rapidly spread after the initial blasts with two four-man tank crews being called out for a rescue operation to evacuate Marines and Vietnamese civilians.

Gunnery Sgt. Joe Martinez led the operation, first to assemble crews and second  to remove all the explosive ordnance from the tanks before going into the dump that had become a smoke filled  inferno.

For nearly three hours the tanks made six trips into the fringe areas of the exploding dump getting as close as 200 yards to its center at Camp Monohan.

Another tank commander, Cpl James Dolan, of Boston, was quoted after the ordeal: “Shrapnel was raining down on the tanks constantly and every time one of the larger explosions went off, we were tossed around inside the tank.”

On their first trip into the inferno, tankers evacuated eight Vietnamese civilians who had taken refuge in a command bunker with a group of Marines.  Not only did the tankers face explosions, but also fireballs, and restricted visibility from the intense smoke.

Trip after trip they brought out some 35 Marines including several scout dog handlers and their dogs from the Third Military Police Battalion.

“Those tanks sure looked good,” one military policeman said.  “It was a relief to know they were going to get us out.  We could see 250 pounders (bombs) flying through the air all around us, but luckily none of them hit the tanks.”

His Manteca home
filled with memories

After having tanks blown out from under him in battle and being hospitalized for months, Martinez continued on and returned to duty with shrapnel lodged in his body and a steel plate in his head.  

His Manteca home is filled with memories of his accomplishments from countless military engagements to being the driver for  astronaut John Glenn in New York.

What deeply touched his heart was finding a 19-year-old girl with terminal kidney disease in the Bay Area where he served as a recruiting officer in Hayward.  Her dream was to be a U.S. Marine,  but a physical turned up an unknown kidney disease.

Martinez put out a call to fellow Marines to “line up” for a blood drive in an attempt to save the girl’s life.  Patricia (Long) Ashbaugh was presented a special commendation at bedside naming her an “honorary recruiter.”

More than two dozen Marines had donated blood in Patricia’s name from Vallejo to San Francisco as the girl was being prepared for a kidney transplant.  It was a difficult outcome for Martinez and his men when she later died.

The countless medals and ribbons in his home tell of his dedication including four Purple Hearts.  His devotion to The Corps is no less today after organizing a 2,000-member strong East Coast U.S. Marine Corps Tankers’  Association - serving as its president - and attending Marine graduations every year in San Diego and at Perris Island on the East Coast.  The tankers’ reunions are a must for him to keep in contact  with his fellow Marines.  From his platoon there are only four left, he said.

An American flag, a Marine Corps flag and the POW/MIA flag fly proudly from a pole at his home.  Nothing has really changed since his retirement from the Corps in 1972. He is still very much a U.S. Marine day in and day out.  It is with great difficulty that he attempts to recall the haunting details of his engagements.

He chuckles, though,  when remembering his brother “coming onto base” as he was  leaving his post in a jeep early one evening before it got too dark to travel to another post.  His brother was stationed with the Army up north while he was in the south of Vietnam.   As he was driving out of the base, he was told someone wanted to talk with him.

It was dangerous to travel the roads after dark and he dismissed the meeting because of lack of time.  However,  he was called back to the base and was surprised to find his brother waiting for him.  He had been in the field for days and was needing a shave, shower and clean clothes.  The brother - dirty, haggard and with many days’ growth of beard - had coaxed a helicopter pilot to ferry him down to see Martinez with the promise of being a source of alcoholic beverages.

After a shower and donning “Marine fatigues” his brother asked help in getting drinks for his troops -the reason for his visit.  Martinez couldn’t say no and paid $150 to help his brother‘s comrades.

Turned down
offer to go home

Following his last battle injuries, Martinez turned down an offer to go home and took over a management position in the officers club in DaNang.

Master Sergeant Martinez had served as a tanker with the First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Marine Divisions.  He was stationed at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego’s Camp Pendleton, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Quantico, Okinawa and with the state department in New York.

He was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal, the Navy Achievement Medal, Purple Hearts, as well as recognition for good conduct, National Defense, Korean Service, Republic of Vietnam Service, United Nations Service, the Republic of Vietnam  Cross of Gallantry, Combat Action and the Presidential Unit Citation.

After recovering from his last injuries he refused to take retirement he received orders to serve as a recruiting officer in both New York and San Francisco and to I & I duty in New York.

Before joining the Marines, Martinez was a journeyman plumber.  When completing his service he signed on again as a plumber supervisor with the California State Department of Corrections at Soledad.

He would later serve in the same position transferring to Duel Vocational Institute prison in Tracy.  His first civilian job was offered to him by a friend in Dublin who owned a plumbing company.  Martinez said jobs were hard to come by because of all of the military personnel returning to civilian life.  It was four years later that he went to work for the state in the prison system.

Today his one complaint involves his traveling around the country by plane.  It takes him an extra half hour to clear security, he said.  The shrapnel remaining in his body and a steel plate in his head sets off the metal scanner big time.

He has asked for a clearance letter from the government to allow him to pass through the metal detector but has been told that’s not possible.