Ken Harbaugh tells the stories of service members who have distinguished themselves through an act of valor. These stories feature recipients from the Civil War to present day, including a few who were originally overlooked for the medal.
Cold, underequipped, and out positioned, Private Martinez led the way up tundra mountains through Japanese defenses on the Alaskan island of Attu. As he readied to destroy the final bunker, Martinez was killed, but turned the battle around for his fellow soldiers.
Welcome to the Medal of Honor podcast, brought to you in partnership with the National Medal of Honor Museum. I’m Ken Harbaugh. In each episode, we’ll learn about a different service member who has distinguished him or herself through an act of valor.
Private Joseph Pantillion Martinez was born on July 27th, 1920 in Taos, New Mexico. When Martinez was seven years old, his parents decided to move the family to Ault, Colorado.
In August 1942, at 22 years old, Martinez was drafted into the U.S. Army to fight in World War II. He trained as an infantryman and was assigned to Company K, 32d Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, based in Fort Ord, California. The 7th Infantry prepared to fight the Japanese Empire in the Pacific theater, practicing amphibious assaults and embarking troops with the U.S. Marines.
A couple months prior, the Japanese seized the Aleutian Islands which were part of the Alaskan territory. This was the first time American soil has been invaded since the War of 1812. For Japan, controlling the Aleutian Islands could stop U.S. and Soviet forces from massing to attack Japan from the northern Pacific. For the U.S, the islands could become launch points for large aerial attacks on the west coast.
On May 11th, 1943, Martinez and the 7th Infantry Division launched an amphibious assault on Attu, one of the Aleutian Islands. Two weeks into their assault, Private Martinez and his regiment were pinned down by enemy machine guns and mortars near a critical mountain pass known as Fish Hook Ridge. Just beyond Fish Hook Ridge was Chichagof Harbor, where the Japanese forces planned to make their last stand. Taking matters into his own hands, Martinez climbed up the frozen ridges of the pass and assaulted the Japanese trenches twice. He killed five machine gunners and urged his fellow soldiers to follow him, but when he reached the last bunker, he was shot in the head. Martinez died the next day. Because of his actions, the 32d Infantry was able to secure a key mountain pass that allowed U.S. forces to secure Attu days later.
On November 11th, 1943, Martinez was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at the Battle of the Aleutian Islands. Martinez became the only Hispanic-American to receive the Medal of Honor for actions on American soil during the war. His other awards include the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Purple Heart, and the World War II Victory Medal.
Martinez was buried with full military honors at the Ault Cemetery, and there are several memorials in Colorado in his honor. Sergeant Earl Marks, who fought alongside Martinez at Fish Hook Ridge, said that Martinez “went on like a wild man with that. He was a tornado that day,”.
The Medal of Honor Podcast is a production of Evergreen Podcasts.
Nathan Corson is our producer and engineer, León Pescador is our script writer, Declan Rohrs is our script editor and recording engineer, and I’m Ken Harbaugh.
We are proud to support the National Medal of Honor Museum. To learn more, and to support their mission, got to mohmuseum.org. Thanks for listening.