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Brother’s quest leads to long-lost WWII sailor’s burial in Las Vegas

A brother’s devotion is the simplest explanation for Seaman 2nd Class Moyses Alfonso Martinez’s burial this month in Las Vegas, a city he may never have visited before his short life ended more than 75 years ago in World War II.

The key to the identification of the New Mexico native’s remains and their return to the U.S. was a DNA sample provided years ago by his older brother, Jose Santiago Martinez. Jose Martinez, a longtime Las Vegas resident, was 21 and serving on the USS Navajo at the time of his brother’s death.

Maria Miedziak, 68, one of Jose Martinez’s two daughters, said her father, who died on April 20, 2009, dedicated his life to seeing his brother’s remains recovered and returned to the States one day.

“He would be so happy, you know. It was really something to hear all this, and we were so emotional,” she told the Review-Journal this week. “We were so glad for the Navy to do all this.”

Moyses Martinez’s journey to Las Vegas was long and circuitous.

Martinez was the second-youngest of six kids — five boys and a girl — and grew up in Dulce, New Mexico, according to records on Ancestry.com. His father, Antonio, worked at a sawmill.

From hotel work to the battlefield

The records show that Martinez graduated from the sixth grade, but show no education beyond that. They also indicate that he worked at the La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe before registering for the draft the day after he turned 18 on Feb. 21, 1943. Five months later, the fresh-faced teen enlisted in what was then known as the U.S. Naval Reserve. He was 5 feet, 8 inches tall and weighed 128 pounds.

He served about a year in the Navy before he was killed aboard the battleship USS Colorado during the Battle of Tinian, when 22 Japanese artillery shells struck the ship on July 24, 1944.

Four crewmen were declared missing in action after the encounter, which damaged but did not sink the Colorado, and 39 were listed as killed, including Martinez, according to a news release from the The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. But his remains could not be identified at the time.

Days later, his mother, Bernardita, was notified that her son had been killed in action. A telegram from the Navy’s chief of personnel said the place where the seaman second class died “could not be revealed, but added that burial at sea or at the locality was highly probable,” according to a front-page story in the Santa Fe New Mexican at the time headlined “Santa Fe Boy Killed at Sea.”

Ancestry.com records show Martinez’s mother died Oct. 12, 1982, in Las Vegas. A 1949 City Directory from Santa Fe indicates that Antonio died sometime previously, as she was listed as a widow. Family members did not respond to an inquiry about the family patriarch’s demise.

After Moyses Martinez’s death, his body, along with those of the other sailors from the USS Colorado, was buried in the 4th Marine Division Cemetery on Saipan.

Four years later, his body was exhumed and examined under the direction of the American Graves Registration Service’s 9105th Technical Service Unit.

Some of the remains of the sailors lost in the attack on the Colorado had been tentatively identified, and the re-examination upheld most of those. But nine sets — including those of Martinez — were reclassified as “unknown.” They were then reburied at the Manila American Memorial and Cemetery in the Philippines.

‘Unknown X-74’

Martinez was buried in plot Unknown X-74.

There he lay until Oct. 18, 2017, when personnel from the military’s accounting agency and the monuments commission exhumed Martinez’s remains a second time and sent them to the DPAA laboratory for analysis.

Scientists identified his remains through dental and anthropological analysis, as well as circumstantial and material evidence. Scientists from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System also used mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) analysis to make the connection to the sample provided by his brother. His status was changed to “accounted for” on June 10.

Jose Martinez’s other daughter, Christella, said her father had been told before his death that his brother’s remains apparently had been located, but the DNA testing was not completed in time for him to be certain.

Moyses Martinez’s remains were finally returned to the U.S. on Oct. 8 in a flag-draped casket that was received in Las Vegas by a Navy honor guard. Members of the Delta Honor Guard, a group of Delta Airlines volunteers who greet the remains of every fallen U.S. military service member, assisted in the arrival ceremony and the transfer of Martinez’s remains to the Bunker’s Memory Gardens Memorial Park on West Lone Mountain Road.

There the young sailor was buried with full military honors next to the brother who never lost hope that he would one day be recovered.

The service was not open to the public, but a YouTube video taken by Christella Martinez shows the arrival at the airport, where a water cannon salute from two firefighting rigs sprayed the aircraft as it moved along the tarmac. The Delta honor guard stood backs straight and saluted the casket when sailors lowered it into a white hearse.

At the cemetery, the young sailor was honored with the firing of three volleys from a squad of rifleman and ceremonial bagpipes. Sailors folded the American flag draped over the white casket into a triangle and presented it to Martinez’s surviving family members.

“On behalf of the president of the United States, the United States Navy and a grateful nation, I’m presenting this flag in commemoration of his honorable and faithful service,” one sailor said.

A final piece of business

One final piece of business remains before Moyses Martinez’s story is complete.

As a result of his long-delayed identification, his name is among the more than 26,000 recorded at the Courts of the Missing, a monument to service members lost in the Pacific and Korean wars at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.

Although interred as an “unknown,” his memorial has been meticulously cared for by the American Battle Monuments Commission. It will not be removed after his recovery, but a rosette will be placed next to his name to indicate he has at last been found.

Contact Briana Erickson at berickson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5244. Follow @ByBrianaE on Twitter.

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