Simon James Peter (‘Sam’)Martinez, forester, papermill worker and street cleaner. Born: 18 February, 1910 in British Honduras. Died: 24 August, 2016, in Edinburgh, aged 106
He arrived in the Highlands in knee-deep snow, a 32-year-old woodcutter more used to the tropical rainforests of the Caribbean but determined to help fight Hitler.
Nearly 75 years later he was still here, having done his bit for the Allies’ victory in the Second World War, fallen in love and forged a contented life in Edinburgh, more than 5,000 miles from his homeland.
At the age of 106, Sam Martinez was the last surviving lumberjack from the British Honduras Forestry Unit seconded to Scotland for the war effort – a force of nature, an optimist and Hibernian FC’s oldest fan.
The sixth of a family of 11, he was born in Barranco near Punta Gorda, in the south of the country now known as Belize, to labourer Francisco Martinez and his wife Estephana. Always known as Sam, he was educated at schools where English was taught as a first language. He also attended a Baptist school in Belize City and was fluent in Spanish and the local Garifuna language.
Never afraid of hard work, by around nine the schoolboy was earning extra money working in the plantations and delivering for a local grocer. But tragedy struck the family when his toddler brother James fell ill. Young Sam took his mother and brother by rowing boat to the doctor but little James did not survive the trip. Sam then had to row them both back home to bury his brother. He later recalled how his mother sang to keep their spirits up and said that was the moment he realised what resilience really was.
After leaving school he worked for a local fruit juice maker and taught Garifuna to children in nearby jungle areas. Keen to better himself, he then took a position 300km north, working as a butler in Bomba, where he stayed for a couple of years. His next job was harvesting bananas on a plantation.
In 1931 a devastating hurricane swept through Belize, killing an estimated 2,500 people, among them another two of Sam’s brothers. He survived the cyclone by hanging on to a tree, only for his next job to be collecting the bodies of those who perished – earning 50c for each one recovered.
He later worked as a policeman before joining the British Honduras Forestry Unit. As a woodcutter he was chopping down mahogany trees so thick it could sometimes take a man an entire day to fell one.
By this time Britain was fighting an escalating war with Germany and running low on stocks of timber as many of the forestry workforce were now in the armed services. A plea for help went out to the British Empire and Sam was one of the hundreds of Hondurans who answered the call, setting sail in a perilous voyage across the Atlantic when convoys were perpetually attacked by German planes and U-boats. “We, being Britishers, we volunteered to come. We didn’t want the mother country to suffer,” he explained.
But by now he also had a wife and two children to support in Belize and his aim was to send money home for them until they could join him.
After arriving in Glasgow in November 1942 he was sent north to a camp near Ullapool. It was blanketed in snow and so cold in the billets that the men slept in their clothes. But the pines they cut down were like matchsticks compared to the trees back home, and despite the bitter winter Sam loved Ullapool.
However, the arrival of the strangers from the Caribbean wasn’t without controversy in Scotland: questions were raised about fraternisation but the foresters generally fitted in well in communities across the country where various units were stationed. And Sam, who also served at Duns in Berwickshire, remembered it as a harmonious time.
When the unit was disbanded, before the end of the war, he faced a heartrending dilemma. The men were offered repatriation or the chance to stay in Britain but his wife had decided to stay in Belize with someone else.
As a result of that situation he opted to stay here and initially lived at British Honduras House, a hostel in Edinburgh’s York Place, where he worked as a cook.
He also quickly became a Hibs fan – after discovering that a large crowd moving along York Place was not a riot but a contingent of the team’s supporters, who happened to be wearing the same colours as his team back home, on the way to a game. A stranger gave him a spare ticket and he joined the fans’ Hawkhill branch. Sam later moved into the building trade and then to work at a Balerno paper mill. By this time he had met and set up home with Mary Jane Gray, a woman 21 years his junior. They went on to have six children, the youngest born when Sam was 61.
Most days, when times were hard, Sam would walk the 8.5 miles from Edinburgh to work in Balerno to save paying bus fares. After the mill closed in 1960 he worked as a street cleaner until retiring from the council at 65 – but he continued to work with a baker and local butcher until he was 94.
The family had moved to Wester Hailes in 1973 and he became a tenant of Prospect Community Housing Association there in 1992, serving on its management committee for the following 17 years and only stepping down when he turned 100. A picture of him, commissioned for his centenary, hangs in the organisation’s reception. He was also well known in the area for his involvement with other community organisations, including the Dove Centre, and as a popular punter at his local Ladbrokes for 30 years.
In 2004 he took part in the Bafta-nominated documentary on the Honduran lumberjacks, The Tree Fellers; was featured in an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum; and at the age of 104 appeared in the BBC programme Fighting for King and Empire: Britain’s Caribbean Heroes. He finally saw Hibs lift the Scottish Cup in May this year at the age of 106.
A happy-go-lucky character, he never looked back and returned to Belize only once,with his adored wife Mary. She died in 2006 but with his typically philosophical outlook he reasoned: “How can I be sad, I’ve had 50 great years with the woman I loved.”
He is survived by their children, nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.