DENNIS P MARTIN - PFC
- DATE OF BIRTH:
- August 23, 1948
- DATE OF CASUALTY:
- February 22, 1970
- BRANCH OF SERVICE:
- South Vietnam
Dennis P. Martin was born on August 23, 1948. His home of record is Swedesboro, NJ.
He served in the US Army and attained the rank of Private First Class (PFC).
Martin was killed in action on February 22, 1970.
August 23, 1948-February 22, 1970
PFC, Army Swedesboro, NJ
He wore number 32 on the Kingsway Regional High School football team of the mid-sixties. He was a punishing running back who preferred running over defenders to running around them. A local newspaper gave him the nickname of "Mangler," but his friends, teammates and family simply knew him as Dennis. He had a contagious laugh, was an excellent athlete, loved hunting, and fishing and as his former wrestling coach, Ron Perkins, says, "had a dedication and loyalty to everything he did."
The Martin family roots go back to Canada, and then to Maine, where Dennis was born. They moved to Swedesboro, NJ in 1955; his parents still live on Franklin Street. Bernadette and Prime Martin raised five children there. Dennis was the fourth and is remembered by his family as quiet, well mannered, and a wonderful son and brother.
"His sisters and older brother protected him," his mother says. "He was not very big or strong growing up but took part in several fitness programs. When he left for the service, he was five foot ten inches and a hundred and eighty-five pounds. He never intentionally caused anyone trouble but sometimes trouble found him. He was definitely the quietest of the five."
Dennis' older brother, Ken of Vineland, recalls a deer-hunting trip to Ocean County when Dennis was sixteen. "We put him in a tree stand and told him not to move from there," he says. "We would come back in a few hours and pick him up. But the weather was cold and damp and I guess Dennis got bored and started walking around. When we returned to pick him up, he wasn't there. As it turned out, he got lost, wandered all over the place and eventually found a highway where he hitch-hiked his way back to the dirt road where we had parked the car. We had almost given up and returned to the car only to find him there waiting for us."
David Martin, now of Elmer, remembers the best friend he ever had. The two were only one year apart in school and shared everything. He recalls a double date that included a scrape with the law. Dennis was driving and their destination was the New Jersey shore.
"On the toll bridge in Sea Isle City, Dennis handed the attendant a few cents short of the fare and just took off," David says. "We thought it was funny. But by the time we crossed the bridge into Ocean City, there were police and roadblocks everywhere. They had us up against the car with their guns drawn. We couldn't believe they made that big a deal of it. Dennis never lived that one down."
David and Dennis, being the two youngest, were also the most pampered of the five children. "We all thought of them as the two little boys," says Danna Calatozzo, now of Pilesgrove Township, NJ. "They were both great with my kids."
"Dennis worked at the old Wickes lumberyard as a detective for awhile," Danna continues. "They had a problem with people stealing and Dennis was good at catching them. But he got into trouble when he and another employee were horsing around and he broke his arm."
"Dennis moved real slow," says Bernadette. "I would be in bed and could tell which one was coming home late by the way they went up the stairs. David would run up and Dennis would take one slow step at a time."
Dennis had to repeat a grammar school grade at Saint Joseph's in Swedesboro, so his varsity eligibility ended in his junior year. He volunteered to coach the freshmen football team when he was a senior.
Steve Licciardello, now of Sewell, was one of Dennis' best friends and can recall an incident that demonstrated his loyalty. "It was during a game and there had been some insults and gestures aimed at the players from opposing fans," he says. "Dennis had his arm in a cast but the next thing you know, he had hopped the fence and was chasing someone across the parking lot. He didn't catch the guy but sure took a razzing from the players."
Dennis graduated from Kingsway in June of 1968. He was accepted by Mississippi State University and wanted to major in physical education. Steve Licciardello and Dennis both decided to give the college a try, but after a year, Dennis left school and came home.
"I think Dennis felt out of place there," Steve says. "Most of the students were raised in the South and Dennis never took to their lifestyle."
"He was homesick," Danna says. "He had never been far away from home. I think we all tried to talk him out of it because we knew if he left school, he would be drafted."
Dennis could have very easily avoided the draft. He had a spinal condition that surfaced on x-rays done when he was a junior. "The doctor told him, if he was ever drafted, to use him as a reference," Bernadette says. "But Dennis never said anything. He said he wanted to be a State Trooper and they wouldn't take him if they knew about it."
Dennis considered enlisting but decided to allow himself to be drafted. The Marine recruiter persisted until the day before Dennis left for the Army. "By then, Bobby Monahon and Steve Fiducioso had been killed and they were Marines, and I think it affected his decision," his mother says. "But he did what was expected of him, he did not want to be a coward and he wanted to get it over with."
In July of 1969, Dennis entered the Army. He was assigned to Fort Dix, NJ for basic training. "We got to visit him a couple of times," says Bernadette. "He was in the new barracks and was really proud to be in the Army."
"The night before he went in, he threw out all his old clothes except what he was going to wear that day," continues Bernadette. "Well, the first time he came home, he wanted to go see his girlfriend and wanted to wear loafers, but had thrown his own out. So he took David's. Dennis wore size ten and David was a seven so by the time he got to his girlfriend's, they were hurting him and he had to take them off. Of course, David comes home and wanted to wear his loafers and Dennis had them."
Dennis was selected for Armor and sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky for mechanized infantry training. In January of 1970, he received his orders for Vietnam.
"He wouldn't let Mom go with us to the airport," says his father. "And he wanted me to take him and just drop him off."
"He called us from Oakland just before he left for Vietnam," says Bernadette. "That was the last time we talked to him."
Dennis was assigned to the Americal Division near Chu Lai, in the northern coastal area of South Vietnam. His unit was Troop H, 17th Cavalry, 198th Light Infantry Brigade. The unit served as a highly mobile reconnaissance force; using Armored Personnel Carriers (APC) to locate and then engage the enemy. The soldiers called them 'tracks' and on operations, they called them home.
"He didn't say much in his letters," Bernadette remembers. "But he did say it was a big mess."
In a letter to Steve Licciardello, Dennis wrote:
How the hell are you? Well, I am here in this great country and it's hot. I am doing alright but I will be glad to see home again. I got out of the south and am now up north about 80 miles from the DMZ, along the coast of the South China Sea. I went swimming in it.
How's your car running? Steve, (Coach) Alston would have been proud of me. The other night, we had a mortar attack. I was laying down. This guy got in front of me right at the door. Well, that was his big mistake. I went right over him and never missed a stride, just like back at good ole Kingsway. This cat was pretty big, too. It's amazing what you can do when you're scared."
In another letter, dated February 9, Dennis makes a pact with Licciardello. Today, the letters are among Steve's most cherished possessions.
I got your letter today. I was glad to hear from you. I was also glad for you about that scholarship. Man, that's great.
Steve, you asked me to tell you what's going on over here. I will but first, I want you to promise not to tell anyone, OK? Just between me and you. OK, here goes. We have been going out in the field and man, it's hell! We came in today for one day and then back out for 60 days. So far, we have hit two mines with the tracks, 250 pound ones. Between those two, no one was killed but 12 people have gone to the hospital and 3 of them have been hurt enough to go back to the states.
We went into a village the other day and a guy that came over with me stepped on a mine and lost his foot. He went back to the U.S. At the same place, another guy stepped into a pungee pit. He didn't get hurt, it just scared the shit out of him.
Myself, I have been shot at and it's no fun. We are going out the day after tomorrow where we hit the mines and the guy lost his foot. This time for 60 days.
Well, that's all my war stories for now. If someone tries to tell you the fighting has stopped over here, hit him right in the mouth.
Joyce told me she was over your house to give you my address. How did she look?
Well, I guess that's all for now. I have guard duty tonight; I got two hours of sleep last night!
P.S. Don't ever tell Pete, O.K.
P.S.S. Pray for Peace
Tell your Mom and brother I said hello.
Just thirteen days after writing that letter, on the morning of February 22nd, Dennis' unit was on a search and clear mission near An Diem in Quang Ngai Province. Dennis was manning the machine gun on top of his track. They were en route to an assembly point where they could set up a night defensive perimeter. Without warning, there was a tremendous explosion.
Like most mothers of those in Vietnam, Bernadette dreaded the evening news but was compelled to watch. With an extraordinary courage, she recalls the week in February of 1970 that broke her heart.
"I heard Walter Cronkite say on a Sunday evening broadcast that two soldiers were killed in the same area where Dennis was stationed. Then on Monday, I see the same thing in the Courier-Post. I knew it was him. When I saw the sergeant and officer pull up to our house on Wednesday afternoon, I felt like screaming. I'll never forget that. I couldn't sit down. Everytime I stood up, they would stand up."
The telegram from the Army, sent with the notification team, read:
THE SECRETARY OF THE ARMY HAS ASKED ME TO EXPRESS HIS DEEP REGRET THAT YOUR SON, PFC DENNIS P MARTIN, WAS KILLED IN ACTION IN VIETNAM ON A COMBAT OPERATION WHEN A MINE DETONATED. HE DROWNED WHEN THE FORCE OF THE EXPLOSION THREW HIM INTO A NEARBY WATER FILLED RICE PADDY. PLEASE ACCEPT MY DEEPEST SYMPATHY. THIS CONFIRMS PERSONAL NOTIFICATION MADE BY A REPRESENTATIVE OF THE SECRETARY OF THE ARMY.
A few days later, on the Martin's wedding anniversary, Dennis' body came home. He was buried at Saint Joseph's Cemetery in Swedesboro. The family, after almost thirty years, remains passionately close and forever saddened by the loss of Dennis. They attend to his grave often and have visited the Wall in DC.
"The memorial in Washington is overwhelming," Bernadette says.
Danna agrees and adds, "You can know that fifty-eight thousand died there, but that doesn't do anything until you go and see the names on those black panels."
"He was the first Martin to give his life for his country," Bernadette says. "It was a shock. We have not yet recovered. To us, he is a hero. And he was a good son, a good brother, and a good friend. We all miss him very much. We still cry, especially when we're all together."
By 1970, the war in Vietnam was viewed by most as a lost cause. We were not trying to win; we were pretending to leave honorably and it had some very dear costs. The other members of the Martin family agree with Mom.
"There was no reason for all those boys to die," she continues. "And for all those who fought to come home and be treated like leftovers. Dennis was not fighting for freedom, but for the glory of those sitting behind desks somewhere. To me, it's very sad and something we will never forget."
Excerpt from They Were Ours: Gloucester County's Loss in Vietnam
by John Campbell
Used with permission of author
Sources: John Campbell and NJVVMF.
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