TAMPA — Many are aware of the Ybor family’s contributions to Tampa.
In the late 1800s, Don Vicente Martinez Ybor established the city’s cigar industry and Latin District named for him. But few are aware of the family’s contribution to the United States’ freedom, Tampa City Council member Luis Viera said. “They are a Gold Star family.”
Salvador Martinez Ybor Jr., grandson of the cigar pioneer, was killed in action in World War II. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart.
At 1 p.m. Wednesday, National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, the Ybor family will present his Purple Heart to the Ybor City Museum State Park.
“He gave it all for his country,” said Viera, who led the effort to have the Purple Heart displayed at the museum. “He was a true patriot, and his story and sacrifice should be honored.”
Ybor Jr. did not have to fight. He was not even living in the United States when the war began.
Nicknamed Salvin, he was born in Tampa in 1910 but later returned to his family’s native Cuba. News archives provide different dates. One says he relocated in 1919. Another says 1928.
In Cuba, he gained wealth in the cattle industry, according to news archives, and could “have spent the rest of his life in ease and peace.”
Then, on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Despite having “only dim recollections of his residence in Tampa,” news archives say, he returned in early 1942 to enlist in the war effort.
“He told me it was his duty to defend the United States,” his cousin Rafael Martinez Ybor, 93, said. “He hadn’t lived here in a long time, but he still considered this to be his country. He stayed at my grandfather’s house at 216½ Hyde Park Ave. for his few months here, and I would visit him every day after school. He was a wonderful man.”
The 5-foot-6-inch, 112-pound Ybor Jr. tried to enlist in the Air Force but was considered too old, Viera said.
He joined the Army and was assigned to the signal corps, which was responsible for designing and developing the communications equipment during World War II.
According to the American Battle Monuments Commission, which maintains permanent U.S. military cemeteries, Ybor Jr. served in the 43rd Infantry and fought in the Solomon Islands, New Zealand, New Guinea and the Philippines.
“Throughout his time in the service, he sent letters and packages home to his nephew,” Ignacio Martinez Ybor, the commission website reads. “These often included things that a boy might treasure, such as exotic-looking seashells and a sabre taken from a Japanese officer.”
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Ybor Jr.’s mother, according to the website, often spoke of seeing her son again. His plane “would look like a tiny speck in the sky,” she would say, “and that speck would get bigger and bigger, until it was close enough to look like a plane. And then it would land, the plane would open up, and Salvin would come home to them.”
He died on Jan. 9, 1945, during the amphibious landing of the Battle of Luzon.
“The family reaction was very strong,” his cousin said. “Everyone was devastated. You never expect to get that news.”
He was buried at sea off the coast of the Philippines, according to the commission, and memorialized on the Walls of the Missing at the Manila American Cemetery. Ybor Jr.’s Purple Heart was presented to his family in Cuba.
Following the Cuban Revolution and the rise of Communism, Ybor Jr.’s family left Cuba. The Purple Heart was among the few personal items they brought to the United States, Viera said.
The council member learned of Ybor Jr. around a year ago while researching the names of locals who died in World War II. Viera reached out to Ybor Jr.’s nephew, who lives in Miami and still had the Purple Heart.
“The story speaks a lot of what patriotism is all about,” Viera said. “He was affluent. He could have stayed in Cuba during the war, lived comfortably, gotten married, raised kids, grown old. But he gave that all up to defend freedom.”