Within these Walls

Biographical portraits of New Orleans residents and their homes

This story appeared in the December/January issue of PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!

On Christmas Day in 1945, the USS Randolph, a converted aircraft carrier, sailed into New York Harbor. Part of Operation Santa Claus, an effort to get as many troops as possible home for Christmas, the Randolph had on board infantrymen who had seen action in Europe.

After carrying out his assignment to check the latrines, Ben Martinez headed up to the deck, where everyone was watching as the ship passed the Statue of Liberty. Ben’s father Benigno Andres Martinez Sr. had immigrated to the United States from the fishing village of Noia, Spain, when he was 15. Now Ben, an officer in the 88th Infantry Division Battalion Medical Section of the 351st Infantry, nicknamed the “Blue Devils,” was returning home to New Orleans after serving his country.

Ben attended Jesuit High School and then graduated from Loyola University with a degree in Pharmacy in 1942. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps while still in school and received a deferment. Shortly before he was called up, he had an emergency appendectomy and was still healing when he reported for duty. As a result, he failed the physical. With his high scores on aptitude tests and his experience in the medical field, he became an army medic.

When Ben arrived in Naples, Italy, he replaced one of the two doctors in his unit and immediately came to the aid of soldiers engaged in combat during the Battle of Lagatico. He spent the war evacuating his fellow soldiers from the front line and tending to their wounds, and he marched from Rome to northern Italy. Though he never fired a shot, Ben’s service was crucial to the success of Allied forces in Europe, and he received a Bronze Star.

On New Year’s Eve, Ben returned to his parents’ home at 12 Fontainebleau Drive. The Martinez family had lived in the stately stucco bungalow for 15 years and would own it for another four decades. As Ben was settling down in the living room, he heard footsteps against the tile front stairs, taking them two at a time.

Photo 1: New Orleans Item, January 9, 1946.   Photo 2: 12 Fontainebleau Drive today. Photo by Dee Allen.

The sound of a whoop and then a voice, calling, “Hey, I’m home,” echoed across the threshold of 12 Fontainebleau. In walked U.B. Martinez, Ben’s brother, whom he had not seen for almost two years. They were astonished to see each other. Neither had expected the other to arrive home on the same day.

Both brothers had been called up together and even went overseas the same month. Both were decorated war heroes. A captain in the Army Air Corps, U.B. Martinez flew 61 missions across Europe and wore the Purple Heart, Air Medal with 11 clusters, and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

The Martinezes had sent all four of their sons to serve their country. At the time, John was a flight engineer in Roswell, New Mexico, and José, an aviation mechanic at Andrews Field, D.C.

Ben Martinez told the Witness to War Oral History Project, “Education carried me all through the war.” In addition to Ben’s accomplishments, his brother John became a professor of mechanical engineering at Tulane University. His sister, Lolita Martinez, was the valedictorian of the Class of 1941 at the Academy of the Sacred Heart and went on to graduate from Loyola University. Another sister, Marie Louise Martinez, obtained a doctorate and was a professor of theology, philosophy, and the humanities. She was a Religious of the Sacred Heart for 71 years.

After returning home, Ben worked as a pharmacist and started his own business. He married and had four children. During his retirement, he volunteered as an archivist at the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum. He also was actively involved in the World War II Museum. He purchased memorial seats in the museum’s Solomon Victory Theater for himself, his brothers, friends and in laws who served during World War II.

“I am so appreciative that I was able to serve as I did,” Ben Martinez said in an interview with the Witness to War Oral History Project, “and so grateful to the men I served with.” He had tears in his eyes as he reflected on the experience, saying, “My service was a highlight of my life.”

Benigno Andres Martinez Jr. passed away on Sept. 14, 2020. At the time of his death, he was 101 years old. His three surviving children penned a moving obituary filled with special memories, many of them made on Fontainebleau Drive.

— Sources: Witness to War Oral History Project, published obituaries and other sources.