Robert L. Martin, a combat pilot who said he flew “63 and a half” missions during Second World War as part of the barrier-breaking Tuskegee Airmen, was shot down over German-occupied territory on the 64th and spent five weeks trying to return to Allied lines with the help of Josip Broz Tito’s anti-fascist Yugoslav partisans, died July 26 at a senior living centre in Olympia Fields, Illinois. He was 99.
Martin, known as “Fox,” grew up in Iowa and became entranced by airplanes when he attended an air show as a 13-year-old Boy Scout. He persuaded his father to let him take a ride on a Ford Trimotor.
“And the pilot, after starting the engine, buckled me in, he touched me with a wire and shocked me, and he said, ‘You’re going to be a pilot,’” he remembered in a video interview for the Experimental Aircraft Association, a Wisconsin-based international association promoting recreational flying. During college, Martin completed a civilian pilot-training program, joking that for a small fee “you could get silver wings and get all the girls.”
War was raging when he graduated from Iowa State University. He joined the Army Air Forces and trained at the segregated military complex in Tuskegee, Alabama, in January 1944. With the rank of lieutenant, he immediately set sail for Italy and was attached to the 100th Fighter Squadron, which helped provide cover for Allied bombers on missions over targets in Europe.
On March 3, 1945, he was one of 24 Tuskegee Airmen who climbed into their single-seat P-51 Mustang fighters from their base in Ramitelli, Italy, to conduct a rail-strafing mission in parts of Slovenia and Austria. Two pilots did not return — Martin and Alphonso Simmons.
“We flew over this airfield where there was no opposition,” Martin said in 2008 at Chicago’s Pritzker Military Museum & Library, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We saw two airplanes parked a little bit off the field, and we said, ‘We’ll get more credit for destroying two airplanes than shooting up a railroad train.’ We went in to shoot up these planes.”
Martin and Simmons were hit by anti-aircraft fire. Simmons was killed.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to fry, I’m going to get out of here,’” he recalled in the Pritzker talk. “I got up high enough to bail out and my beautiful parachute opened and knocked me out — cut my chin open and floated me down to earth.”