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WWII veteran to parachute into history with help of AFRL researcher

  • Published
  • By Holly Jordan
  • AFRL Aerospace Systems Directorate

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – Dayton-area World War II veteran Jim “Pee Wee” Martin will return to the site of an historic battlefield this month when he parachutes into the Netherlands, through the help of Air Force Research Laboratory computer scientist Kevin Price.

Martin, 98, of Xenia, Ohio, is a veteran of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, an elite group of paratroopers who were called upon during World War II as the first line of offense against enemy forces. During his time in the war, he took part in three of the largest campaigns—Operation Overlord in Normandy (D-Day), Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands, and the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes region of Europe. 

This month he will return to the site that holds a special place in his heart. On Sept. 17, 1944, Martin parachuted into the Dutch village of Son as part of Operation Market Garden. The largest airborne operation in history, Market Garden was a mission to secure critical bridges so that Allied ground forces could advance through the Netherlands and into Germany’s Ruhr valley. The intent was to gain a strategic foothold and bring an end to the war. Although the mission did not achieve complete success, it was nevertheless a very important one in the war effort, and to the Dutch people in particular. As a result of this effort, Allied forces liberated the central and southern portions of the Netherlands from German occupation.

Martin had originally hoped to parachute into Normandy this past June on the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, but health issues at the time prevented him from participating. He said he was disappointed to miss out on the opportunity.

That’s when Aerospace Systems Directorate researcher Kevin Price stepped in. Price, who currently works in the Lab developing Automatic Collision Avoidance System technologies, met Martin eight years ago at a Memorial Day ceremony. The two have since become close friends.

Price offered Martin a second chance to be a part of the 75th anniversary events when he suggested the idea of participating in the Netherlands’ commemoration. Since Price had once lived only a few miles away from Martin’s original jump site as an exchange pilot with the Dutch Air Force, he also held a fondness for the region, the people, and the history.

“I went to the Normandy commemoration in June,” said Price. “When I came back, I said [to Martin] ‘Hey, you couldn’t go to this, but what about the Netherlands in September?’ His response was, ‘Well, if they’ll let me jump.’”

A number of obstacles stood in the way of making Martin’s goal a reality. The Dutch authorities were at first reluctant to grant permission for the near-centenarian to parachute alongside the much younger wartime reenactors scheduled for the event. But Price’s advocacy, combined with a medical clearance letter from a Veteran’s Administration’s physician, convinced the Dutch officials to agree to the proposal. Once travel funding and logistics were confirmed with the organizers from the Netherlands America Foundation as well as the Round Canopy Parachuting Team, the plan was in motion. Since Martin’s usual travel companion, retired Dayton-area history teacher Doug Barber, was unavailable to accompany him on the trip, Price happily stepped in to fill that role.

Martin said he feels his jump is necessary to bring attention to the region and its important place in history. “Everyone thinks of the war as Normandy, he commented. “They forget about Holland.” He said he hopes the jump will “put them on the map” and help make the location a destination for historical tourism.

Keeping history alive in this region is important to Martin. Of all the places he fought during the war, he said he has a particular fondness for this place and its people.

“The Dutch people were treated really terribly,” he said of the German occupation. He went on to explain that because the people of the region were so grateful to see Allied forces come in, they did whatever they could to help. He said young boys would pick up weapons, rocks, or whatever they could find, and fight alongside the American troops. Everywhere they went, Martin said the Dutch people expressed their gratitude and willingness to aid the effort.

“They did everything for us.  It was absolutely amazing.”

Martin calls the upcoming Netherlands jump a “capstone” event of his military life, which began with his training at the famed Camp Toccoa in Georgia. Profiled in the book and subsequent miniseries Band of Brothers, Toccoa was the wartime paratrooper training camp where young men were groomed to become fierce and skilled battlefield warriors.

Martin’s regiment was the first to train at the camp, earning him the honor of being a “Toccoa Original.” These men were the first to endure the tough and strict training regiment, paving the way for those that followed.

“They put us in impossible situations and ran these war games,” Martin recounted. “Jumped us in bad places to see if the plan they had was worth losing so many men for. There are things we did that they later got rid of so that the guys behind us didn’t go through all that stuff and suffer the injuries and losses we did.”

He explained that four more regiments went through Toccoa after his, “but the original…when people say you’re an Original, it means something.”

During a furlough to his home in Dayton after his training, Martin was offered the opportunity to take part in parachute development at what was then Wright Field. His commander, however, denied the request. He, along with two others in his regiment were also offered the opportunity to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, but they all turned it down so that they could immediately join the war effort.

“I signed up to go fight,” Martin explained.

That is exactly what he did. His wartime experience not only saw him parachute into two major military operations, but also participate in the liberation of the Kaufering concentration camp at Landsberg, Germany, and the siege of Adolf Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest at Berchtesgaden, Germany. Through it all, he endured cold, hunger, and the gruesome experience of seeing his friends killed beside him. As a result of the war, he lost one kidney, suffered a ruptured diaphragm, and developed a heart condition from the concussive shock of enemy fire.

Ever the pragmatist, Martin insists that it was a job he willingly volunteered for. “This is what we trained to do…would I go again under similar circumstances? Absolutely.”

Throughout the many years since the war, Martin has devoted much of his time to serving his local community as well as telling his story to audiences eager to experience a taste of living history. Although he enjoys his private life, he has never shied from sharing his experience.

“I want people to know the truth,” he explained.

Now as he prepares for his trip to the Netherlands, Martin reflects upon his time there and the people he encountered. “I’m glad I went,” he said. “And I’m glad I went in the unit I went into and did the things I did and saw the things I saw. Just imagine, reading it in a history book and then going over there. We had the luxury of talking to people who were actually living through it while it was going on.”

For Price, accompanying Martin on this historical journey is the honor of a lifetime.

“This is really an amazing testament to a great generation of warriors by a truly great man. This jump will be particularly moving because this is the 75th anniversary. This is the last big practical milestone, so the whole nation of the Netherlands is going to be pretty excited about this.”

Weather permitting, Martin’s jump is scheduled to take place on September 17, at 1:01 p.m., in Eerde, Netherlands, 75 years to the day, hour, and minute that Martin first jumped into the area as part of Operation Market Garden.