Johnstown Independent

Veterans return to Point du Hoc

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Last July, when he was 89 years old, James "Pee Wee" Martin celebrated the 65th anniversary of America's victory in World War II with a reprise of his youth: He made a parachute jump.

He wants to do it again this year.

For most of the past 66 years since the war ended, Martin has lived on 50 acres near Dayton, in a house he and his wife built themselves.

"I do all the things I used to do, just not as much," Martin said. "We heat with wood and I split the wood. I have a backhoe and I mix concrete."

On June 3, Martin will join Johnstown resident Don Jakeway and Woodsfield resident Herman Zerger in a special trip to Normandy for this year's D-Day celebration.

Jake, Zerg and Pee Wee, as they are known, will be traveling with a cohort of more than a dozen friends and family, courtesy of a trip organized by New Albany resident Mark Easton, who traveled to Normandy last year with Zerg.

Easton and Zerg are both friends of former senator Max Cleland, now secretary for battlefield monuments.

"We have been invited by Max Cleland and President Obama to the Point du Hoc rededication," Easton said, noting that the famous D-Day landmark has been undergoing repairs. "The last big event there was President Reagan did a big speech there in 1984, the 40th anniversary of D-Day."

Zerg and Easton and friends will start the trip May 28, retracing Zerg's battles in Italy. On June 3, Jake and Pee Wee will fly into Charles De Gaulle Airport. Pee Wee has not been to Europe since 1964, when he and his wife were feted by the Dutch government Jake was in Europe last in 1991. This will be Zerg's seventh trip.

All the men remember clearly months of fighting, harrowing near misses, lost soldiers and severe wounds.

"I was in a foxhole next to (Monte) Cassino, and at that time that was the heaviest concentration of bombs dropped in the war up till that time, on the abbey," Zerg said, remembering "And they dropped me in a foxhole. It was several hours. Wave after wave of bombers went over. I was deaf for a pretty long time."

He can remember battles where a thousand men died. He remembers entering Rome.

"We entered Rome on June 5, the day before D-Day," Zerg said. "I remember marching past the Coliseum and the general was standing up in the Jeep, and thousands of Italians were cheering us on."

Jake remembers the Battle of the Bulge, the snow, German snipers killing his men one by one.

"Snow was two three feet deep, and a sniper shot two of my men," Jake said. "I only had six men. I decided we were going to go out and get the man, get the sniper. I'm walking through the snow, and I knew something was not right, I just had a bad feeling, and I look over and laying right there was the sniper pointing his Mauser rifle at me. All he had to do was pull the trigger and he could have killed me. I turned real slowly and he threw up his hands, and so did another one right beside him."

Not too long after, Jake remembers going to bed with his hands trembling with fright. The next day he was shot.

"I got shot right through the chest," Jake said. "When I came to the medic was taking my boots off. I had a .45 in my holster and I said, 'What do you think you're doing? If I can get this .45 out you'll never wear them.' He started crying."

In the ambulance, with some wounded German soldiers, Jake's stretcher broke, so that he was wrapped in canvas. The ambulance drove off the road, rolling downhill into a stream. Everyone was killed except Jake.

At their age--the youngest is Zerg, at 87--they are familiar with their friends dying. All are in good health. None considers himself wounded by the war; rather the opposite.

"It is an honor and a privilege to be a part of history," Pee Wee said. "I really feel sorry for people of my generation who did not get a chance to go, because it's the greatest experience you're going to have in your lifetime. It's never going to happen like that again."

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