It is said that a person dies twice — first, when they take their final breath, and then when their name is no longer spoken. Memorial Day is a somber day for us to honor those names, the dead whose memories should be in our hearts.
Salvador Martinez-Ybor Jr. is one such man. Salvador, grandson to Ybor’s cigar industry pioneer Vincente Martinez-Ybor, was a man whose love of country caused him to forsake an affluent existence in Cuba to enlist in the U.S. Army in World War II. He died in battle in January 1945, a death that makes Tampa’s Martinez-Ybor family a Gold Star family.
Salvador — nicknamed “Salvin” — was born to Salvador Martinez-Ybor and Consuelo Pou in 1910. He grew up in Ybor city with his parents and brother, Ignacio Sr. In the early 1930s, Salvador moved with his family to Cuba.
In 1942, Salvador, then in his early 30s, single and without children, returned to the United States to enlist for World War II. He lived at 216½ Hyde Park Avenue in Tampa and spent time with many people, including his cousin Rafael Martinez-Ybor Jr. (This great-grandson of Vincente Martinez-Ybor lives in Tampa to this day.)
The enlistment of the grandson of Vincente Martinez-Ybor was chronicled in the local news. He stood only 5′6″ tall and weighed 112 pounds but had a big heart: After being rejected by the Air Force (as he was too old), Salvador successfully enlisted in the Army.
While overseas, Salvador sent his young nephew and godson in Cuba, Ignacio Jr., items from the war — including seashells from the South Pacific and a Japanese soldier’s saber. Ignacio Jr. treasured these items as a boy.
Salvador joined the 43rd Infantry Division, which fought in the Pacific. After numerous battles, the 43rd Infantry Division fought in the Philippines — its recapture was critical to defeating Japan. In January 1945, at the Battle of Luzon, Cpl. Salvador Martinez-Ybor Jr. was hit by shrapnel and killed in action.
Ultimately, Salvador’s family, including young Ignacio Jr., received the posthumous Purple Heart. Salvador would be buried at sea. His mother in Cuba wore black the rest of her life. In March 1945, the Tampa Tribune made note of how this privileged man, who could have spent the rest of his life in peace and affluence in Cuba, enlisted in the U.S. Army and gave his all.
Ignacio Jr. and much of his family would leave Cuba in 1960 as refugees fleeing Fidel Castro. Like most Cuban refugees, Ignacio Jr.’s family left behind most of their possessions — for him, that meant leaving Salvador’s treasured gifts. However, Ignacio Jr. managed to take with him Salvador’s Purple Heart. Today, Ignacio Jr. treasures this tribute to his family’s remarkable sacrifice for liberty.
The relatively unknown story of Salvador Martinez-Ybor speaks to the intersection between Cuba and Tampa, both from immigrant and refugee experiences. It tells of how one of Tampa’s greatest families — the Martinez-Ybor family — is a Gold Star family. It tells of the remarkable journey that Salvador took in forsaking affluence to enlist, fight and die for a nation he loved.
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More than anything, Salvador Martinez-Ybor’s story shows us a larger truth of Memorial Day.
Every soldier who gave all has a journey that is worth our reverence and time. Though we may not always know their names, we know their stories and sacrifices. Our fallen and Gold Star families come from all over — all races, religions and creeds. They are coal-mining families from West Virginia; Boricuas from Queens, New York; and families who courageously made the Great Migration from South to North. Many, like the African-American World War I heroes who rest in East Tampa’s Memorial Cemetery, gave all for their country when that country would not stand for them. The families of the fallen trace their lineage to the Mayflower and are also often from grateful refugee and immigrant families that once communicated in Italian, Spanish, Arabic or Yiddish. Their link is an uncommon devotion to protecting at all costs our civic and national ties that bind.
This Memorial Day, remember names like Salvador Martinez-Ybor. It is a name few of us know but one that should mean everything to Tampa’s heart.
Luis Viera, who was raised in North Tampa, represents District 7 on the Tampa City Council.