At Colleville-sur-Mer on the Normandy coast above Omaha Beach is the most beautiful American cemetery. It is the cemetery—on 70 acres deeded to the people of the United States—that frames the narrative of Saving Private Ryan and in which rest the remains of a farm worker from San Luis Obispo County.
I had told the fourteen Arroyo Grande High School students who accompanied my English teaching partner, Amber Derbidge, and me in June to expect to see a grown man cry when we visited the American Cemetery, but that was trite. 9,387 white crosses and Stars of David engraved with service numbers, names—or not—units, and dates of death simply overwhelm a visitor.
“Our” soldier was named Domingo Martinez, killed in action July 12, 1944. Our students found him in Plot C, Row 13, Grave 38.
Another group found the grave of 2nd Lt. Claude Newlin, a county resident and artillery officer killed during the breakout from Normandy on July 30, 1944. A third county soldier, P-38 pilot Jack Langston, is memorialized; shot down in June over Cherbourg in a costly mission for his fighter squadron. His body was never found.
The AGHS students gathered somberly around the graves. If anything, their emotions were truer than mine—throughout a tour of Northwest Europe, we were repeatedly complimented on their seriousness and their appreciation for everything we saw, from the Anne Frank home and the light-suffused Vermeer paintings in Amsterdam to the horrific ossuary near Fort Douaumont on the Verdun battlefield.
Now they’d found someone who’d moved the Second World War beyond textbooks.
Martinez had interested me because of his surname and his occupation. I grew up in the Upper Arroyo Grande Valley; our home was bounded by bean fields and in the summertime, the melodic whistling of Mexican farm workers, braceros, walking down to the fields would wake me. Years later, in college, my major’s focus would be Latin American history.
When, as a history teacher, I saw Omaha Beach, below the cemetery, I had the same reaction I’d had when my sons and I had visited Gettysburg years before. When you study the battlefield and see what the Texans and Arkansans faced in their uphill attack on Little Round Top and Devil’s Den, your reaction might be: What idiot (it was, of course, Lee) ordered this?
The “idiot” in 1944, of course, would be a great American, Dwight Eisenhower, but when you look up from the beach from the pebbled shelf where even the battle-tested 1st Infantry Division balked, and then again when you mount the bluffs and see what an uninterrupted field of fire the German defenders had, you have to question Ike’s sanity.
That anyone could do what those G.I.s did bewilders me, but the fact I can’t pinpoint Martinez’s hometown bothers me. The chances are good he’d worked the same fields I’d known as a little boy.
But, unlike Navy and Marine Corps records, Army records list only the counties of World War II enlistees. My own search through the old Arroyo Grande Herald-Recorder and the hard work of the San Luis Obispo County Genealogical Society revealed no obituary.
Martinez was a member of the 313th Infantry Regiment of the 79th Division; he landed on Utah Beach after June 6 and lived only four weeks more—more than long enough to become a veteran.
The grandson of his commanding officer was able to reveal that the 313th was fighting near Bolleville, on the Cotentin Peninsula, on the day Martinez was killed, that the regiment was vulnerable because it was deployed in small units that were expected to cover a great deal of ground.
That ground might have included the hedgerows that gave German troops superb defensive positions and made the lovely pastures and wheat fields of Normandy a hopscotch of death traps for the American infantry.
Pvt. Martinez was 25 when he died. His father, Fulgencio, was about the same age when Domingo, the middle son between two daughters, was born in New Mexico.
Martinez somehow found himself in San Luis Obispo County by 1943, when he enlisted in Los Angeles. He was listed as “single, head of household.” He was assigned to the 313th, saw training in Tennessee and in desert combat back in California; the 313th was then transferred to Kansas and embarked for Europe from Camp Myles Standish, Massachusetts. The regiment ultimately fought in Holland and Belgium, would serve occupation duty in Germany, but Pvt. Martinez’s war ended in Normandy.
Another soldier’s war ended the same day. Buried in a plot near Martinez is Gen. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who died of a heart attack five weeks after leading the assault on Utah Beach; next to him lies his brother, Quentin, whose World War I death as a fighter pilot broke their father’s heart: TR died only a year later.
Though the Roosevelts were memorialized in such newspapers as the New York Times, Domingo Martinez’s obituary is yet to be found.
Jim Gregory teaches history at Arroyo Grande High School. Anyone with information on Pvt. Domingo Martinez can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Send comments via the editor at email@example.com.
-- Jim Gregory - History teacher, Arroyo Grande High School