Snohomish veteran visits WWII sites of his past

Five countries in seven days. That’s a rugged itinerary for anyone, but Leonard Martin has never been one to complain.

Martin, 87, is just back from a whirlwind trip to Europe. He went with his neighbor, Peter Stitt, a 53-year-old retired Navy commander.

Their friendship began in 1999. That’s when Stitt moved in across the road from Martin on Fobes Hill near Snohomish. Stitt noticed the older man’s license plate showing he’d been a prisoner of war.

“He talks about it,” Stitt said. “Some guys don’t, he does.”

Their trip began May 7 with a flight to Amsterdam, via Reykjavik, on Icelandair. They drove through Belgium to France, where the elderly man was able to walk the Normandy sands of Utah Beach. Martin landed there as a soldier on Sept. 7, 1944. He was 19. A 1943 graduate of Snohomish High School, Martin was part of the 104th Infantry Division, known as the Timberwolves.

A visit to the Normandy American Cemetery, where almost 10,000 Americans are buried, was one trip highlight. Stitt said Martin and another American veteran “of his vintage” joined in a ceremonial folding of an U.S. flag.

In one village, they found a street-side marker that said “Red Ball Express.” Before his capture, Martin was a guard along the Red Ball truck route, which World War II Allies used to move supplies from the Normandy beaches to far-flung combat units.

They visited Breda, in the Netherlands, near where Martin was captured on Oct. 31, 1944. His company — Martin was an assistant gunner — had suffered casualties that cut their strength to 20 men, from 120. They surrendered near the Mark River after running up against a German tank.

Martin was interrogated by Germans at a castle in Breda. On the recent trip, he and Stitt went inside that building, now a training facility for Dutch officers. Through Internet research, Stitt also found and they met with a World War II re-enactment group while in Europe.

Some of the old soldier’s darkest memories were unearthed in Bad Fallingbostel, Germany. Now home to a British Army base, Fallingbostel was where young Martin was sent in a packed railroad car from Breda to Stalag XIB. It was one of several POW camps where he was held, subsisting on bread scraps and maggot-filled soup, until his release April 13, 1945, one day after President Franklin Roosevelt died.

On their journey, they were helped by Kevin Greenhaugh, curator of the Fallingbostel Military Museum, to find where Stalag XIB had been. They stood at the Fallingbostel rail station, where almost 68 years ago Martin and about 110 others were unloaded from the rail car.

“It’s a beautiful German village,” Stitt said. “Yet at the train station, time has stood still.”

The curator showed them a 1945 aerial map, and took them to where houses now stand. “The Germans put a housing development where the POW camp was, but kept the roads the same,” Stitt said, adding that the camp’s foundations remain in nearby woods.

One chilling sight was a cemetery of unknown soldiers, where the remains of 30,000 Russian soldiers lie in Fallingbostel.

On Veterans Day 1999, Martin and his wife, Laina, who died in 2003, came to dinner at the Stitt home. Martin, a retired plumber, brought an old suitcase. On Thursday, Martin again opened the suitcase for visitors to his home.

Inside are relics of his war years. There’s an old blanket Martin said was made with wood fibers; a metal spoon and fork from the POW camp; and a letter, dated Jan. 13, 1945, that Martin sent home to Snohomish after his capture.

That he’s not a complainer is obvious in the words Martin shared with his family from the prison where he lost 65 pounds.

“Dearest folks,” he read aloud, from the letter. “As always, I am fine. I hope you are too. … It only takes once in combat to learn what thankfulness is.”

“That sums up Leonard,” said Stitt, listening.

The Navy veteran is writing the war history of his older friend. Stitt was inspired to write about Martin after reading “Unbroken,” Laura Hillenbrand’s book about Louie Zamperini, an American track star held during World War II as a prisoner of the Japanese.

Stitt, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, said Martin’s story is no less remarkable. Among treasures in Martin’s suitcase are scissors he used to give haircuts to other prisoners of war. He also sewed on buttons for fellow captives.

Together, Martin and Stitt visit schools for Veterans Day programs. A Shriner, Martin has dressed as a clown to bring cheer to hospitalized children.

He was once asked to speak about his military service at Everett’s First Presbyterian Church. On Thursday, Martin read aloud from a copy of the talk he gave:

“May the memories of those who didn’t come back and those who suffered not be forgotten,” he said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; muhlstein@ heraldnet.com.

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