Friends of slain WW2 veteran look for answers in Merced
It was Max Brown’s biggest regret in life. He had never contacted the family of Lazaro “Lester” Martinez, the 19-year-old kid who had held him when he was certain he would die on the shores of a distant island in World War 2.
On Max’s deathbed in 2001, his son Scott made him a promise. He would track Martinez’ family down, and tell them in person what a great person and friend he had been.
And he’s been on the search ever since. The Brooklyn native has scoured the records for traces of Martinez and his family, a search which has finally led him to Merced County, where census records show that Lazaro — who was born in Merced — lived with 12 of his siblings.
Scott hasn’t been able to pin down all the details, but he does know that Martinez and Brown served in the 2nd Marine Division, joining the war effort after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Both were from immigrant families and felt a duty to their adopted country. Like many Californians, Martinez’ family was from Mexico and Brown was a Jew whose family had immigrated from the Baltics. It’s not known where Lester and Max first met in the service, though Brown was part of the amphibious landing at Guadalcanal in 1942.
On Guadalcanal, a tropical island a thousand miles northeast of Australia, the American Marines met Japanese troops on land for the first time in the Pacific War. They fought for half a year in thick jungle before the Japanese finally abandoned the island. But they wouldn’t abandon the next one.
In November 1943, after building momentum through a series of successful battles at sea and on land, the Allies prepared a campaign to retake a series of islands that would put American forces in range of striking Japan. The first on the list was Tarawa, a skinny ribbon of sand more than 2,000 miles west of Hawaii. Brown and Martinez were assigned to a three man mortar crew in the first wave of attacks.
Unlike Guadalcanal, Tarawa was heavily fortified by the Japanese. The small island was barely a mile across, but the Japanese had built a network of pillboxes and trenches in anticipation of the coming fight. When the landing craft arrived on the morning of Nov. 20, the Marines were shredded by machine gun fire and pre-sighted artillery before they even reached the beaches. Making matters worse, the tides had failed to rise that day, stranding the soldiers and their equipment in shallow water with very little room to hide. After hours of fighting, though, the Marines eventually made it to shore. As Brown moved up the beach, he found a Japanese soldier laying in the sand. Before he knew it, the soldier had grabbed a gun and shot him through the right shoulder.
“My father, when he got hit, said it was the most surreal experience anybody can have,” Scott said. “He thought he was dead. Life was going in slow motion.”
Almost as soon as he was hit, his friend Lester came to his side. The 19-year-old held him while they waited for a medic.
“He said when Martinez came over and cradled him, my father was saying, ‘Lester, I’m hit in the heart. I’m dying. I’m hit in the heart.”
“Where’s your heart, Max?” Martinez replied. Brown gripped his shoulder.
“You idiot, you were shot on the right side,” Martinez continued. “If you were shot in the heart, you wouldn’t be able to tell me you were shot in the heart!”
Brown was heaved onto a wooden raft and taken to a hospital ship, which he recalled later were lined up in the sea like cars at rush hour on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles. He ended up at a hospital at Pearl Harbor, where he needed five surgeries to remove all the bone fragments from a shattered clavicle. A week after he arrived, the Marine Corps posted the casualty list from Tarawa. Lester Martinez had been killed somewhere on the island. The time of death showed that he had died just 30 minutes after comforting his friend.
“He felt like he got hit by a brick baseball bat in his stomach when he saw Lester on the KIA list,” Scott said.
By the end of the battle, a thousand Marines had been killed in the span of a couple days, making it one of the bloodiest fights in the entire war. When Brown recovered and returned to his life in Brooklyn, Max talked about Lester all the time. Scott recalls his mother often joked, “Sometimes I feel I’m married to two men, Max and Lester!”
“Lester was almost god-like to my father,” Scott said. “Lester was 19, and my father was old for a soldier back then. He was 26. Lester kept an eye out for him. He made sure he helped the old warrior, the old man.”
But Max never could track down Lester’s family. It was much harder to find people in the pre-Internet days, but even on the best of days, finding a specific Martinez in Merced County is a lot like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Scott said his father never liked to talk about the war. It wasn’t until Scott saw the movie Flags of Our Fathers, about the Marines in the battle of Iwo Jima, that he realized he had to do something.
“It was like splashing cold water on my face,” he said. “I have to do it. I want people to realize that guys like Lester Martinez and my father were heroes.”
Scott’s goal is to travel to Merced on Thanksgiving this year – the 80th anniversary of the battle at Tarawa – and meet with surviving members of Martinez’ family. But he is looking for help in finding them. Lester had a twin brother, Frank Martinez, who also served in the military but survived and passed away in Atwater in 2018 — just five days before his 94th birthday. He also had a sister, Dolores, who might still be alive.
“He’s probably a forgotten man,” Scott said. “And probably the grandchildren of his brothers and sisters have heard of him, but don’t know much about him. I think it’s time to pay Corporal Martinez his due.”
If you are able to share information about the Martinez family, please email: [email protected].