Unless you’re from the small river town of Washington, Missouri, you’re probably not familiar with the name Morrie Martin. He was good-natured, unassuming and quick to laugh. He liked to hunt and fish, and talking about baseball was something he always enjoyed.
What he didn’t like was talking about World War II.
Before the war, he was a left-handed pitcher in the minor leagues. Because he was a “southpaw,” most people called him “Lefty.” He was also my great uncle. My sister, brothers and cousins knew him as “Uncle Lefty.”
By most accounts, he was an outstanding pitcher. At 17, he once threw shutout games against two different college teams on the same day. By 1942, he was playing with the St. Paul Saints and felt that it was only a matter of time before he would be called up to “The Show.”
But instead of the major leagues, he was drafted into the Army. He was assigned to the 49th Engineer Combat Battalion of the First Army and ended up in North Africa as part of Operation Torch.
Then came June 6, 1944 ― Operation Overlord
His job was to land on Utah Beach in the first wave and clear obstacles. Continuing inland, he also fought in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the first French town to be liberated by the Allies on D-Day.
On July 23, 1944, Uncle Lefty received his first Purple Heart while guarding a crossroad at Saint-Lo during Operation Cobra. He was wounded by shell fragments in his neck arm, and left hand.
That summer and fall, Uncle Lefty’s unit fought its way through France and Belgium. However, just before Christmas of 1944, the Germans launched a surprise, all-out offensive that became known as the Battle of the Bulge. Exposed to the elements, he developed severe frostbite to his feet – an issue that would plague him for the rest of his life.
Slept in the basement – buddies upstairs killed
By February of 1945, the 49th had pushed into Western Germany as part of the Rhineland Campaign. One night, during a respite from heavy fighting in the town of Elsdorf, Uncle Lefty decided to sleep in the basement of a building instead of the main floor. Most of the other soldiers disagreed.
Martin forever remembered the German shell that hit the building; most of those sleeping upstairs were killed. Uncle Lefty and two others who were in the basement with him were buried in the rubble. By morning they were able to dig themselves out and eventually rejoin their unit.
In early March, the First Army captured the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen. The bridge was the only usable crossing on the Rhine River, which served as a natural barrier and Germany’s last line of defense. Damaged by retreating German troops, the bridge eventually collapsed 10 days later, killing 28 American soldiers and injuring 63 others.
Combat engineers like Uncle Lefty were able to construct several temporary bridges to keep the movement of men, equipment and supplies flowing into Germany.
Nurse’s recommendation saved his leg
Uncle Lefty’s war ended on March 23, 1945. At another crossroad – this time near Bonn, Germany – the 22-year-old former pitcher was shot in the leg. By the time he received a higher level of care, gangrene had set in and a surgeon informed him that his leg would be amputated.
After reviewing his chart, a nurse noticed that he had been a baseball player. She told Uncle Lefty he didn’t have to agree to the procedure and, instead, he should request a new therapy called penicillin. After more than 150 injections, one every four hours, his leg was saved. Shortly after the war ended, he was discharged from the Army.
Thanks to the advocacy of that nurse, Uncle Lefty not only made a full recovery, but in 1949 was able to break into Major League Baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers, playing with teammates that included Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider and Roy Campanella.
Over a 10-year career, he pitched for the Philadelphia Athletics, Chicago White Sox, Baltimore Orioles, St. Louis Cardinals, Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Cubs.
Although he spent most of his baseball career as a relief pitcher, he never complained about missed time or the wounds he received during the war. In his modest way, and with a hint of humor, he would say that the deformed finger on his pitching hand helped him throw a better curveball.
During an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the man who rarely talked about the war because of the terrible things he experienced had this to say about his participation: “We had a job to do and we did it. I don’t have regrets about the time I missed in baseball. I’m proud of what we did. I’d do it again.”
A few days after saying those words, Uncle Lefty died just before Memorial Day in 2010.
I want to thank all Veterans… especially Uncle Lefty
I work at Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital, where every day my colleagues and I have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the Veterans we serve.
A number of my relatives are Veterans, going as far back as the Civil War and up to the war in Iraq. I’m very proud of them all. Like so many who are part of VA, I take that pride and perspective with me to work every day.
Only about 7% of the current U.S. population has served in the military. If you have family or friends who were in the armed forces, try to learn something new about them. No matter when or where, their service is special.
This Memorial Day, I want to thank all Veterans for the sacrifices they’ve made as a result of their service – especially my Uncle Lefty.
Jeff Hoelscher is the public affairs officer at the Truman VA and a U.S. Navy Veteran.