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Marthinson, Villa campaign vet, dies at 104
Olaf Marthinson of Allentown, a 104-year-old World War I era veteran who served with troops protecting the Arizona border from Mexican rebel leader Pancho Villa, died Monday afternoon in the Manor Care Health Services home in Salisbury Township.
"His 104-year and 10-month-old organs gave out, and he just went to sleep peacefully," said his daughter, Cookie Angstadt.
The native Norwegian, former sales executive and long-proud patriot had lived in three centuries, from the time U.S. soldiers rode horses and fought the Spanish-American War to the era of smart bombs and laser-guided missiles.
As recently as November, he spoke to children at Allentown's Ritter Elementary School about his experiences in the desert Southwest in 1916 and elsewhere during World War I.
He was a courtly gentleman who loved to sing and read history and poetry. He prayed before every meal, read the Bible daily and attended services at Christ Lutheran Church.
Though his vision and hearing waned, he stood ramrod-straight and stayed keen of mind. He lived alone at the Hotel Traylor for years and kept fit by walking around West Park almost every day. On Christmas Eve, he was unhurt when a fire forced him and about 75 other residents to flee the building.
But last month a maid found him lying helpless on the floor in his room and he was admitted the next day to Lehigh Valley Hospital, Salisbury, his friends said Tuesday.
"He had a slight infection and some pneumonia, and he might have had a heart attack sometime recently," said Charles Mackenzie, a former Lehigh County Republican Committee chairman who met Marthinson, an avid Republican, in the early 1980s.
About two weeks ago, Marthinson was taken to the nursing home, where another friend, fellow veteran Martin F. Schaffer, came every day at noon to feed him. Schaffer knew something was wrong when he entered Marthinson's room on Monday.
"Usually he was already in a hospital chair, nicely dressed, wearing a starched shirt," Schaffer said. "Yesterday for the first time, he was in bed when I arrived. He opened his eyes a little. He knew who I was and he shook my hand. But he said nothing."
Schaffer, who is 81, lives in Allentown and is president of the Lehigh Valley Chapter of U.S. Submarine Veterans from World War II. He had known Marthinson for 10 years, taking him to doctors and social affairs, bringing him food and looking in on him.
But Marthinson, who would have turned 105 on May 14, wouldn't need Schaffer after Monday. "Marty," as his friends called him, died of heart failure at 4 p.m., nurse Rina Ceraso said.
Angstadt, 55, of Rosemont, Delaware County, was with him in the morning. She described her father as sensitive, gentle and kind with a generous spirit. "He was a man who loved the beauty of words, poetry and music. He taught me to appreciate poetry and sang in a beautiful voice."
Born in 1896 in Porsgrun, Norway, Marthinson was 11 when he came to America with his mother, two sisters and two brothers. His father was already here, working in Jersey City, N.J. The rest of the family joined him.
"The first thing my father did was join the church choir in Jersey City, and that's how he learned English," Angstadt said. He went to school for only two years, then helped to support his family by driving a horse-drawn butcher wagon and an ice truck.
He was a teenager when he joined the Army. In 1916, after Villa's forces crossed into Columbus, N.M., and killed 18 Americans, Marthinson's National Guard unit was sent to keep peace.
"We had equipment that had been used by the Spanish-American War troops in '98 old uniforms, some of them fit and some didn't and had to make camp in the desert," Marthinson told The Morning Call in 1999, when he appeared on the cover of a special Veterans Day section called "War Stories of the Century."
"We slept badly, with our ponchos underneath our blankets on the ground, exposed to all kinds of crawling creatures like tarantulas."
Marthinson saw Gen. John J. "Blackjack" Pershing but not Villa. Sent home after nine months, Marthinson got a job with the Manhattan Electric Co.
When America declared war on Germany in 1917, Marthinson's unit was activated as the 113th Regiment, 29th Infantry Division. Then a sergeant, he missed going to France with his buddies in 1918, instead attending officer training school. He was commissioned a second lieutenant on Aug. 26, 1918.
In 1941, he joined Graymills Corp., a maker of coolant pumps and pumping systems, based in Chicago. He and his wife, Dorothy, and Cookie moved to Allentown in 1948. He was named Graymills' vice president in charge of Eastern sales, and retired after 11 years.
Mackenzie, the former GOP chairman, said his friend was "a very good citizen. He was conscientious about voting in every election. He also was very proud of the fact he served in our military."
A baseball fan, Marthinson saw Babe Ruth play, and Christy Mathewson was one of his favorite players, said Mackenzie, 56, of South Whitehall Township.
Ritter School Principal Rosalie Mancino said 500 pupils gave Marthinson a standing ovation last Veterans Day. "They were amazed," she said. "He remembered many things from his past, and they had a deep interest in what he had to offer."
Pastor Walter Wagner of Christ Lutheran Church said Marthinson "would come in and see me regularly. He was a devout and devoted man, an inspiration to those who knew him."
When Marthinson was admitted to the hospital on Feb. 17, he was among about 2,400 living veterans of the World War I era.
A news release from Lehigh County said the county "has lost a piece of history and a true American."
Marthinson's granddaughter, Gillian Angstadt of New York City, summed up his life: "He was wise and dignified, always a gentleman. Everybody loved him."