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'Now I know war'

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By The Staff

Staff Writer and Photographer

Matthew Martin lived his early life not knowing war. Born in 1921, and raised in rural Kentucky, the concept seemed distant.

"I was completely apart from war," he said. "I knew all about The Depression, but not war."

December 7, 1941, changed everything. Martin recalls the day clearly.

It was a Sunday and he was loading tobacco onto a truck in Briaridge, a town in Spencer County. Martin was to take the tobacco to Shelby County and upon arriving he heard a boy selling newspapers on the sidewalk as Martin put it "screaming about this place Pearl Harbor."

Martin's sister was a nurse in Mount Eden and he went to her to find out what exactly was going on.

"I asked her all about it; what had happened; and where Pearl Harbor was. After that everyone knew about war and everyone was involved," he said.

Martin originally did not plan on enlisting and instead decided to go if called upon. "I figured they'd holler for me if they needed me," he said.

He changed his mind not long after and opted to apply for the United States Air Force.

"I was always fascinated by planes and I had a high school diploma," Martin said. "I'd ridden motorcycles before and I figured that's the closest I would get to planes until I enlisted."

Martin went to Cincinnati before being shipped to basic training in Selfridge, Michigan and planned on being a plane mechanic. With his farming background, however, commanding officers had a different idea for him.

"I ended up working on trucks instead," he said. "Being an old country boy, I knew more [about working on trucks] than just about anyone."

Nevertheless, the skill he demonstrated as an auto mechanic impressed his superiors and he quickly acquired staff sergeant status. Martin then applied to be a cadet. Upon his acceptance into cadet school he was shipped to Nashville and later was one of 25 men sent to Florida to learn how to fly P-40 planes. He also became versed in a variety of other models such as the PT-13, and 86's.

Martin was finally shipped overseas to England in July where he began flying a P-51 Mustang fighter. He would undertake 40 successful missions in the plane before his luck ran out. While flying a mission over Berlin his engine gave out and Martin was forced to eject himself from the ill fated plane.

"Flying over Berlin was like stirring up a bunch of bumblebees," Martin said. "I'd never bailed out before and I pulled the rip chord at 22,000 feet going too fast."

Luckily, his parachute steadied and according to Martin, he could have smoked a cigar on the way down. He also had one pervasive thought:

"I'm not volunteering for anything ever again."

Martin wound up in a pine tree.

"It seemed like the tallest one in Germany," he said. "I undid my parachute, climbed down and found myself in the middle of the woods."

He walked for a while before finding himself in a wide open field, where he was nearly spotted by a German soldier.

"There was nothing else to do but hit the ground. I waited until he was out of sight and then kept walking, trying to find some railroad tracks."

Martin would then walk for roughly ten miles before exhaustion and a nagging leg injury which he sustained in the ordeal overtook him. He came across a farmer and was forced to give himself up. The encounter, according to Martin was initially a cordial one. He was taken in where he met a woman who spoke near perfect English, making him feel at home.

"I thought it was going real good until their landlord came home. He wasn't so friendly and he took me to jail," said Martin.

There he was interrogated for roughly three or four days before being sent to a prison camp near the Baltic Sea which was solely for officers.

"The only information I gave them was my name rank and serial number. That's it."

He and 10,000 fellow prisoners of war were incarcerated and fed nothing but potatoes. Their only other form of sustenance was whatever animals they came across. Martin recalled a prisoner finding and eating a goose that had died of a broken neck as well as moles and mice. Martin himself came close to eating a stray cat but decided not to and let it go. Not long after, however he discovered one of the other prisoners had done so.

"They didn't feed us much," he said. "By the time I was captured, they [the Germans] were losing and had trouble even feeding themselves."

Martin would be imprisoned for six months before Germany surrendered and the camp was ultimately liberated by Russian troops. He and his fellow prisoners were so malnourished by that time, they could not digest the food they were offered.

"They [the Russians] had killed some cattle and gave us beef but our stomachs were in no shape to eat anything like that."

Martin was then flown in a B-17 to the Lucky Strike air force base in France, nursed back to health and issued a new uniform. In the "latter part of 1945" Martin docked in New York City. He then took a train to Indiana and a bus to Shelbyville to his family who he had not alerted until he was stateside.

"I'd heard a story about someone's parent dropping dead from surprise, so I made sure to call ahead."

He would then be reassigned to Okinawa for another 15 months before being officially discharged in October of 1949.

Martin and his wife Ruth bought a tobacco and dairy farm in Pleasureville on March 20, 1950, where they currently reside. They raised two children, a son and a daughter and now have four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren as well.

Martin's experience overseas is one that he will never forget and one that forever changed him.

"[Being a POW] hardens you. For a long time after I came home, there wasn't much that brought a tear to my eye," he said. "I was just a country boy with a job to do when I started. Now I know what war is."

E-mail us about this article at news@hclocal.com.