Military service a testament to Martin family heritage

For Ernest “Ernie” J.T. Martin, serving in the US Armed Forces was not just a duty or responsibility. It’s a proud family tradition.

The retired colonel, who served on the USS General C.H. Muir during WWII, is pleased to count himself among a long line of distinguished US veterans dating back to the 1700s. His fifth great grandfather, American General Joseph Martin, served in the Revolutionary War and was present at the Hillsborough Convention in 1788 for the ratification of the United States Constitution.

The interior of his Mills Avenue home is a testament to the Martin family heritage. The veteran’s living room-turned-art studio is covered in patriotic works, including his “Guernica,” an abstract representation of the suffering of 9/11. The walls of his study are covered in old photos documenting his rich patriotic lineage, from portraits of his brothers decked in military regalia to a picture of his youngest daughter, whom he named America, to reminder him of the country and the opportunities he has fought for his entire life.

“The price of freedom is not free,” said Mr. Martin. “It takes constant alertness and constant willingness to fight back to maintain that freedom.”

Working to help preserve that independence is a pledge that, at 86 years old, the veteran continues to live by. “I owe my purpose to American freedom,” he said. “That’s my quest, to live in honor of what my family has fought for.”

Mr. Martin was handed down his nationalistic pride from his father William Knox Martin, a lieutenant in the Marine Air Corps who fought in World War I. Though Mr. Martin’s father was killed in combat shortly after he was born, his presence was felt in the Martin family household. The patriarch’s military cap was a favorite playtime accessory for the young Martins and his patriotism a standard all wished to attain.

The Martin boys got their chance in 1941 when the United States joined World War II. While his brothers rushed into combat, the youngest Martin was thwarted by his age, two years under the age requirement of 18. But it didn’t stop him from trying.

After being told to come back once he had a little fuzz on his chin, Mr. Martin rubbed Vaseline and ash on his face and made his way to the Coast Guard Office near his home in New York City. Adept at holding his breath under water and skilled in combat, thanks to some martial arts training at the local laundromat, he was accepted to the Coast Guard’s underwater demolition team in 1943. Five months into his service, however, his true age was discovered and Mr. Martin was sent back home to New York. The moment the age requirement was changed to 17, he was right back in action.

Mr. Martin worked his way up from steward’s mate to gunner’s mate third class on the USS Muir, serving in five theaters of war with the APA 142 Troopship Amphibious Forces. He was honorably discharged in 1946. Though he received a Purple Heart for being wounded by an underwater explosion, Mr. Martin returned home relatively unharmed. One of his brothers was not so fortunate. Samuel Morris Martin was reported missing in 1944 after his plane was shot down during in aerial combat in the Pacific. A year later, his body was found.

“It knocked the wind out of my sails,” Mr. Martin remembered. “We were a very close family.”

Mr. Martin has dedicated his time post-service to preserving his brother’s memory and the freedom soldiers fight for in the way he knows best, through his art. After the war, Mr. Martin joined the Art Students League of New York with the assistance of the GI Bill, becoming one of the early abstract expressionist painters along with contemporaries like Jackson Pollock. While exhibiting at major galleries and museums throughout the world, Mr. Martin uses his trade to support the Armed Forces. During the Gulf War, the artist put pen to paper to create greeting cards for soldiers overseas. Thousands of cards were sent through Operation Kids Mail, the organization he founded to give other civilians the chance to offer soldiers their words of support.

Drawing up cards with the other children at the Topanga Canyon mall has left a lasting impression on Mr. Martin’s daughter, Lyn Adelstein, particularly when she saw the benefit of their work.

“There was one time there were three or four straight, tough-looking guys standing up above us, watching our whole operation. They eventually came down and thanked us because they were soldiers who received our cards. It was really, really neat,” she said.

Her father has also used his creative prowess and patriotism to build a war memorial, previously on display along Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena. Though the commemoration has since been removed, it hasn’t erased Mr. Martin’s sense of purpose and pride. With the drive instilled in him as a soldier, Mr. Martin has led a life with no boundaries, traveling the world to train exiled Cuban troops, help fight against the drug war in third world countries and take on a decade-long career as a matador, all in the name of freedom. And while his pursuits and accomplishments may be varied and each more colorful than the next, none have had a more lasting impression on Mr. Martin than his role as an engaged US citizen.

“In America, anything is possible. You can be an artist, a doctor, fly airplanes. Freedom grants that opportunity.” “That’s why this country is so great.”

—Beth Hartnett


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