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Honoring Veterans - One World War II warrior’s story

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By Mercy Lopez

Horacio Martinez knows what it’s like to risk your own life for the good of your country. The Mora county native was 23 when he and his brother Nicolas volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Corps as World War II was raging.

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The sons of the late Mr. and Mrs. Alex L. Martinez of Mora both graduated from Mora High School and studied airplane mechanics at New Mexico Highlands University. They then headed to the West Coast for work.

While in San Diego they worked at an airplane factory until the day after Horacio Martinez’s 21st birthday.

One day they were celebrating Horacio’s birthday and the next day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, killing and injuring thousands. The Pearl Harbor attack plunged the nation into war.

The devastating news of the attack spread throughout the nation, and everything changed. Horacio Martinez, now 92, said women went to work at the airplane factory while the men were serving the country at war. Horacio Martinez and his brother decided to return to their Mora County home and join the Corps.

The brothers headed for training in Texas for four months. While there Nicolas Martinez did not pass the “air sickness” test and was assigned to ground forces. Horacio continued his training as an assistant radio operator on a B-17. Nicolas Martinez was sent to England in February of 1944.  Horacio Martinez  soon followed and landed on his brother’s base in England.

Horacio quickly found himself way up in the sky taking part in dozens of high-altitude mission attacks over Germany.

“It was either them or me that would die in the attacks,” he said.

Horacio Martinez was one of the smaller men of his group. His job was to squeeze into a ball turret of the heavily armed B-17 Flying Fortress and shoot 50 caliber machine guns at German fighters as his aircraft flew at between 30,000 and 38,000 feet in a formation pattern.

“The flying was OK, and when the fighters were attacking you, you had no choice but to fight back,” Horacio Martinez told the Optic during a recent interview. “As we were dropping the bombs the flak (exploding shells shot from guns on the ground) was hitting your plane. I just used to remember the plane was up into autopilot 20 miles into the target. Once you get to the target that is when the flak started coming in. That’s when you start to worry.”

He flew thousands of miles to reach the enemy and his crew hit the enemy with more than 70 tons of high explosives, including bombs. Brother Nicolas Martinez ensured his brother’s plane was in tiptop shape for the missions as an airplane mechanic.

“When the flak was coming in you were too busy to look at the flak hitting you,” Horacio Martinez said. “... It was either you or them.”

The life expectancy of a ball turret gunner was far shorter than the life expectancy of the rest of the 10-man crew as the enemy tried to attack from the bottom up.  The ball turret is a sphere shaped compartment located on the belly of the B-17 – near the location of the bombs.

Horacio Martinez said that during one of the missions flak was pounding the plane, and one of the crew members started to pray loudly.

“You couldn’t talk unless you needed to report something over the intercom,” Horacio Martinez said. “It was rough.”

He said the enemies tried to hit the bombs in an effort to bring the B-17 down and kill the entire crew.

“We got hit many times by flak, pieces of metal, that caused holes in the plane,” he said. But Horacio Martinez and his crew were lucky.

“The only injury my crew had was the radio man that got his toe blown off from flak,” he said.

Horacio took part in the Misburg and Merseburg missions and a Christmas Eve 2,000 bomber attack. The Christmas Eve attack is said to be the greatest effort by the Eighth Air Force ever in one day.

“The Christmas Eve raid included 2,000 bombers and a thousand men hitting all over Germany after clearing France and other countries,” he said.

Horacio Martinez, who attained the rank of staff sergeant, said, “the hardest mission was the Merseburg mission. We had over 200 flak holes on the plane. One piece of flak went through my helmet.”

“You could only fly 35 missions and you couldn’t fly everyday,” he said. “You didn’t want to fly on days that were overcast. I saw numerous mid-air collision when you are trying to form the formation.”

He said the formation, which is similar to the way geese fly, was important and added power to the squad and decreased the chances of hitting each other with bombs.

Due to the planes being in a high-altitude the temperature was well below freezing and the crew used oxygen masks while flying.

“When you would take off your mask there was ice in it,” he said.

The highly decorated veteran flew 35 high-altitude missions with the 490th bomb group, the maximum allowable and was honorably discharged in 1945. His brother Nicolas also made it back home, although he has since died.

Horacio Martinez holds four Oak Leaf Clusters for his “meritorious achievement” on the attack on Nazi targets along with numerous other medals.

After being discharged he returned to Mora County and taught industrial arts at the Mora school district until his retirement. After retiring, he spent two terms at Mora County Clerk.

While he is a highly decorated veteran, Horacio Martinez says one of the things he’s most proud of is that his brothers and the majority of his children all attended and graduated from Highlands University.