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The Things We Carry

In late 1967, three Midvale buddies died in Vietnam. Forty years later, their families still struggle with the loss



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It should have been the perfect road trip. Jimmy Martinez had a 72-hour leave from San Diego’s Camp Pendleton before shipping out for Vietnam. His brothers Eli, George and Norbert decided to drive him back to camp. But Eli Martinez’s 1965 Pontiac was burning oil, his brother Norbert recalls with irritation. Their final hours together evolved into an 18-hour marathon of constantly replacing oil. “It screwed our whole time together,” he says.

They arrived late to Camp Pendleton and Jimmy Martinez ran to get in line with his unit as they prepared to leave for Vietnam. “That was the last time I saw him alive,” Norbert Martinez says.Jimmy Martinez was the fourth of 10 brothers and a sister. His family was the 11th generation of Spaniards who settled the Santa Fe territory in the 1600s. Martinez’s grandfather was a sheep-herder and cattleman who lived in Taos, N.M. in the 1920s. Jimmy’s father Andres eventually moved the family to the primarily Mexican-American enclave of Dinkeyville in Copperfield, Bingham Canyon, just one of the “league of nations” communities strung throughout the canyon. They were surrounded by nearly two dozen ethnic groups including Greeks, Italians, Japanese, Slavs and Poles.

Norbert Martinez remembers the high-pitched whine of the mining shovels, the shrill whistles that announced blasting, the way the ground shook with each explosion, and the dust that hung in the air. His memories are of all of the kids playing in the hills, swimming at the Civic Center, of dodging vehicles on Bingham’s narrow Main Street, of fistfights and playing ball.

“We used pick handles from the mines instead of bats and wrapped black tape around the balls when they were broken,” he says. The ball field was wherever they made one.

Jimmy Martinez worked as a delivery boy at Kim’s Market in Copperton earning $1.25 an hour. His cousin Gene Martinez helped Jimmy at the store on Saturdays, in exchange for Jimmy buying him a burger at the Copper Queen next door. Gene, too, would serve in Vietnam as an Army transport truck driver. When Gene returned from the war, he went to see his aunt Maria. “I felt guilty,” he says. Although she said nothing, he felt her question hanging in the air—how come he got back OK?

Norbert Martinez’s abiding memory is of his happy-go-lucky brother Jimmy getting off the Hillcrest High School bus. As he walked home, stick in hand rattling the picket fences, he slapped the open hands of awaiting neighbors as they raised them in salute. Jimmy had a girlfriend who lived in Clearfield whom he wanted to marry before enlisting, but Norbert thought it was a bad idea.

“In his mind he thought he was doing the greatest thing,” Norbert Martinez says, “and that he’d come back and pick up his life with her. I talked him out of it.”

David “Doc” Johnson was one of two Navy corpsmen assigned to Lance Cpl. Jimmy Martinez’s platoon in Hotel Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. His company was known as Hell’s Hotel. Its motto: You check in, but you don’t always check out.

Vietnam quickly proved to be a dangerous place for young Jimmy. During his tour, Jimmy was wounded and transferred to the hospital ship the USS Repose stationed off the Vietnamese coast. Recently retired KSL 5 newscaster, Dick Nourse, interviewed Martinez aboard the Repose in 1967. Jimmy told him how he and three other Marines had been wounded while patrolling through elephant grass. One of them had triggered an American M26 fragmentation grenade rigged up by the enemy as a booby trap. Jimmy was the least wounded of the four. When Nourse asked how he managed to get off so lightly, Jimmy said, with a broad smile, “I just happened to luck out I guess.”

That luck ran out on a rainy Thanksgiving Day. Jimmy’s platoon was on a night patrol heading for a predesignated ambush site. They were in the low areas, close to rice paddies and rolling hills. The Marine walking point tripped a wire connected to a 105 mm, unexploded American bomb. This type of booby trap was far more lethal than the grenade-type Jimmy had survived prior. Doc Johnson remembers the huge explosion, “but it was dark as hell in the middle of the night and you couldn’t tell one from another. There wasn’t anything to do but stick them in body bags.” Three Marines had been killed instantly. One of them was Midvale’s Jimmy Martinez. Radio operator Luis Parker heard the explosion from the battalion area. He and Jimmy were friends. “What brought us together was the fact we were both Mexican-Americans,” he says. As a minority, Hispanics clustered together from Day 1 in basic training, Parker recalls. “The drill instructor used to call out ‘Give me all my niggers and spics up here,’” for punishing push-ups. “There was always one with a mean streak.” To a certain degree, he admits, he found a racial divide in the Marine Corps he didn’t care for.

Doc Johnson wasn’t close to Jimmy, partly, he says, because the rifleman and his friends “spoke Spanish, and no one else did. I had a little bit of a problem with that.” He put it down to a communication and lifestyle issue—“people hanging out with their people.”