Veteran's Day is a time for people to celebrate veterans across our country. It's a day one Rochelle man doesn't take for granted.
The WWII veteran nearly died in one of the most infamous naval attacks of the war. It's a time he rarely talks about, but he opened up to 13 WREX about that fateful day that nearly took his life.
"I was sitting in the mess hall having breakfast. And that's the only reason I'm alive today," said Gilbert Martin.
70 yeas ago, Martin didn't realize hunger pangs would save his life. He was only 17 years old when he enlisted in the military. His orders: Report to the USS Franklin.
"I felt privileged to be assigned to an aircraft carrier because I thought that was the safest place in the world to be. But I was stupid at 17 years old," said Martin.
The USS Franklin Was full of military aircraft; planes meant for dropping bombs on Japan. The ship was a big target for the Japanese and on March 19, 1945, a Japanese pilot spotted it and attacked.
"We could hear these shells going off and above us on the hangar deck because a rocket would shoot out and go right through the walls or bulkheads and there was nothing we could do down there," said Martin.
The U.S. aircraft on board were recently fueled acting like kindling to a fire.
"It was utter confusion when things are blowing up, you don't just walk around. Everybody had to help with the hoses to try and put out the fires from our own bombs blowing up," said Martin.
Almost 1,000 people died that day and nearly everyone on the hangar deck, the very spot Martin was before he decided to grab some food, was killed. But miraculously the ship didn't sink and it went down in history as the most heavily damaged U.S. carrier to survive the war. Sharing his story, Martin contains his emotions. That us until he gets a special surprise from the military. Two soldiers presented him with an American flag.
"We really want to thank you for your service and everything you've done for this great nation, sir," one of the soldiers says.
The simple gesture moves Martin to tears. His voice shaking, he says "Thank you". It's a memento he'll hold on to, to remember surviving on the ship that wouldn't die.