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Encyclopedia Dubuque

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MARTIN, Robert L.

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Photo courtesy: Gabrielle Martin

MARTIN, Robert L. (Dubuque, IA, 1919--Olympia Fields, IL, July 26, 2018 ). Facing challenges was not new to Martin who grew up in Dubuque as one of the city's few AFRICAN AMERICANS. Wanting to be a Boy Scout posed a problem because some parents threatened to remove their boys from the program if the troop admitted a black. (1)

A 1936 graduate of DUBUQUE SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL, Martin earned his pilot's license as a student at Iowa State University and took his first solo flight in a Luscomb trainer. He graduated from Iowa State University earning a degree in electrical engineering and obtained a pilot's license. (2) While still in college, he applied to join the U.S. Army Air Corps and was accepted after he was drafted into service. He began his military career in Fort Dodge. It was from there that he was granted a three-day extension of a furlough by his commanding officer.

Photo courtesy: Gabrielle Martin

Martin, according to the photo the only African American ski jumper in the world, was given the leave so that he could participate with the Longview Ski Club, in the 1943 ski tournament in Madison, Wisconsin. (3)

Martin was later transferred to Tuskegee, Alabama to train in the Army's Black pilot program, where he received the rank of commissioned second lieutenant and specialized in operating the AT-6 Texan and the P-40 War Hawk (4)

Robert L. Martin with his older brother Navy Ensign Henry Martin. At the time of this picture, according to Gabrielle Martin, the Martin family was the only black family with two officers in the military. Photo courtesy: Gabrielle Martin

Segregation continued to play an important life in the life of African Americans in the pilot program. They had their own classes, flew on different airstrips and ate meals in separate dining halls from the white pilots. The Army even had a War College study that suggested blacks did not have the basic capabilities to pilot warplanes. (5)

Tuskegee airmen were trained using this type of airplane. Photo: Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, Alabama
One of the actual airplanes used during World War II. Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, Alabama

Martin arrived in Italy in June 1944 and joined the 100th fighter squadron, part of the all-black 332nd fighter group. Their job was to keep German BF-109 Messerschmitts and other fighters from attacking American B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberator bombers. Black pilots, an estimated 450 of the 1,000 from the Tuskegee program, flew 15,533 individual combat missions in WORLD WAR II. They were known to American forces as the "Red Tailed Angels" because of the identifying red paint on their planes' tail section. The "Tuskegee Airmen" earned the respect of their peers and the military leaders. In 1947 the Air Force became a separate service and segregation of the pilots was ended in 1949. (6)

Lt. Martin, flying a P-51 Mustang, had 63 1/2 missions to his credit as part of the 100th Fighter Squadron which defended Allied bombers from attack. (7) On March 3, 1945, he was shot down by ground fire over the Zagreb aerodrome (Yugoslavia) and parachuted from the burning airplane. Listed as missing in action, he was rescued by Yugoslav partisans and was not captured by the Germans. He spent five weeks in Yugoslavia and then returned to Italy by truck and plane. (8) He returned to his base on April 8, 1945. (9)

Robert L. Martin receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross. Photo courtesy: Gabrielle Martin

Martin's decorations included the Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart and Air Medal with 6 Oak Leaf Clusters. In 2007 he received the Congressional Gold Medal for his service and was inducted into the Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame. (10) After being discharged, Mr. Martin continued to serve in the Army Air Corps Reserves, rising to the rank of captain. Following his military career, he maintained a commitment to public service, serving as an engineer for Cook County, Illinois. He was also a leader in Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., an organization whose members traveled the country as educators and historians. (11)

Photo: Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, Alabama

On February 23, 2010 Martin was honored at Simpson College with the 2010 George Washington Carver Medal. Carver, who received part his education at Simpson, later taught at the institute where the airmen trained. (12)

In June, 2020 with national attention focused on racial injustice, there was further effort to honor this brave Dubuque resident by renaming the regional AIRPORT in his honor. He had been honored in November 2019 in Chicago with the naming of a United States in his name. (13)

In September, 2021 the UNIVERSITY OF DUBUQUE unveiled its Captain Robert L. Martin Black Heritage Tribute Initiative with exhibits and performances to celebrate Black contributions to American history. Dominique Martin, a daughter of the flier, spoke about her father at the university's Heritage Center. (14)

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Source:

Obituary: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/robert-martin-tuskegee-airman-who-flew-63-and-a-half-combat-missions-dies-at-99/2018/08/04/db678df4-9448-11e8-a679-b09212fb69c2_story.html

1. Information provided by Richard G. Bridges

2. Harkin, Tom. (United States Senator), "A Tribute to Robert L. Martin, Tuskegee Airman," Capitolwords. Online: http://capitolwords.org/date/2013/06/10/S4054_tribute-to-robert-martin-tuskegee-airman/

3. "Six Dubuquers Enter Madison Ski Tournament," Telegraph-Herald, February 12, 1943, p. 16

4. Harkin

5. Bridges

6. Ibid.

7. Kruse, John, "'One Last Flight' for Famed Tuskegee Airman," Telegraph Herald, August 1, 2018, p. 1A

8. Bridges

9. "Robert Martin Escapes Nazis," Telegraph-Herald, April 19, 1945, p. 15

10. Bridges

11. Harkin

12. Ibid.

13. Gordon, Dawnelle, "Rename Dubuque Airport for Dubuque Native & Tuskege Airman, Captain R. L. Martin," Online. Change.org

14. Reese, Kayli, "UD Honors Local Tuskegee Airman," Telegraph Herald, September 28, 2021, p. 1A

Special thanks to Gerald C. Gordon and Gabrielle Martin, the daughter of Robert L. Martin.