Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"Whirly Birds" and Presidents: The Story of Mr. Martinez

Manuel O. Martinez, Retired LtCol Marine Corps

It’s no surprise that Hemet-Ryan Flight School owner, Joe Martinez, developed the aviation bug after sitting down with his father, Manuel.  Mr. Martinez Sr. served in the United States Marine Corps as an aviator for 23 years, earning a Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star, and no less than 14 Air Medals.  He has over 2000 combat hours and 20,000+ total flight hours under his belt.

Had he not been the youngest of his high school class, Mr. Martinez would have joined all his friends and enlisted during the Korean War in 1949.  Instead, he was forced to stay behind and decided to get his degree in order to be qualified to sign up for Marine Corps flight training in Pensacola.  Flying became his first love-affair.  He was ready to serve our country as an aviator….just when the war ended!  He remained in Pensacola and was put to good use as a flight instructor.

After Korea, fixed wing pilots were not getting any flight time due to cutbacks.  The demand for aviators in the service shifted and Mr. Martinez had a choice:  either switch services or learn how to fly these new “whirly birds.”  It was a no-brainer- anything to keep flying.  He had no idea that switching from fixed wing to helos would start his next love-affair. 

This Vietnam rescue mission story retold by Joe is particularly amazing.  Mr. Martinez disregarding the Flight Commander's orders to abort a dangerous mission, leaving U.S. soldiers in a hot LZ.  Mr. Martinez flew back and loaded his H-34 (capacity of 8 troops) with 15 troops and managed to get them a mile out of the combat zone, while ignoring the chopper's warning systems screaming at him, red lights blaring and the engine all but failing.  Instead of facing backlash, that heroic stunt earned him a Silver Star.

After many harrowing rescue missions and supply drops, Mr. Martinez found himself back in the U.S. in 1966 with orders to head to the HMX-1 Squadron in Quantico, Virginia.  He was asked to fly co-pilot Marine One with President Johnson to a Latin American Conference in Punta del Este, Uruguay.  Upon their return, for undisclosed reasons, the Full Bird got relieved.  For the next four years, he became the trusted Marine One pilot for President Johnson and his family, and even got invited to attend a Presidential Sunday barbeque.  

He once got orders to pick up former President Eisenhower.  Mr. Martinez learned that former President Eisenhower very specifically did not like to be known as an ex-president; he liked to be known as a Retired General.  The plaque on the side of the helicopter had to be switched out quickly to remain on Eisenhower's good side. 

Mr. Martinez’s humble manner of speaking and downplayed war stories are in truth nothing but heroic and unbelievable.  I listened, captivated by story after story of rescue missions in thick enemy fire in the jungles of Vietnam.  It was clear that Mr. Martinez was recognized as a brave, steady pilot who selflessly did whatever it took to bring back as many American soldiers as his choppers would carry.  We thank you for your service for our country!


  1. Here is more information on Mr. Martinez's heroics:

    Operation Gibraltar:
    On 18 September 1965, the 101st Army Airborne Division conducted an air assault mission against a Viet Cong (VC) strong hold in the Binh Dinh Province of Viet Nam. The first two waves of the air assault insertion (a company and a half of infantry) were inadvertently dropped on top of the main VC force. In the first few moments of the landing, 13 troopers and all the officers were killed and 44 were wounded. Despite several attempts by the 101st to extract their initial force their attempts were repelled by heavy machine gun fire. Two helicopters and crew were lost in this effort.

    Marine Corps Captain Manuel O. Martinez, Commander of the Marine Corps HMM-161 detachment, was in a supporting role for this operation. His seven HRS-1 Helicopters were tasked to transport follow-on forces for the assault. Upon hearing that the operation went wrong and of the failed attempts from the 101st to extract their personnel, Martinez landed nearby and discharged his passengers, then flew into the enemy fire to save the pinned down 101st troopers. A total of 58 enemy rounds struck his helicopter and after saving what was left of the assault force, only six of his seven helicopters were able to make it to a nearby village before they crash landed. One was lost in the rescue attempt.

    Because of his actions, Captain Manuel O. Martinez was awarded the Silver Star.

    Note: Less than two months later, the 7th Cavalry, under the command of Lt. Col. Hal Moore, suffered the same fate in the Ia Drang Valley which inspired the book, “We were soldiers once … and young.”

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