A year ago, the Dubuque County Conservation Board solicited the public’s suggestions on what to name its new park immediately south of John Deere Dubuque Works. The 137-acre parcel was a generous gift from Deere, which unselfishly declined to have its name attached to the park.
In January, the conservation board named the park Proving Grounds Recreation Area, giving a nod to the site’s prior use as a place where Deere tested its products. It fits.
While commenting on the park-naming process, the Telegraph Herald Editorial Board last year put in a good word for Robert L. Martin — if not for the park, then for some other appropriate public venue.
A Dubuque native, Martin, who died a year ago at age 99, was a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, a corps of African American fighter pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. Their exemplary and courageous service contributed to subsequent racial integration in the U.S. military.
Collectively, the Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 15,000 sorties over North Africa and Europe and earned more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses.
Should you think that the story of the Tuskegee Airmen would make a great book or movie, be aware that it’s been done. Their remarkable story involves not only taking on Nazis and other Axis powers in battle, but taking on blatant racial discrimination within American society and the military ranks.
Martin received the Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, seven awards of the Air Medal and, as a surviving member of the Tuskegee Airmen, a Congressional Gold Medal.
He flew, as he put it, “63½ missions.” He was shot down over German-held territory during No. 64, suffered an injury, but worked his way back to Allied lines with tremendous help from a network of anti-fascist Yugoslavians. His dangerous journey to safety lasted five weeks.
Martin had been through a lot long before that harrowing experience. His mother died not long after he was born here in February 1919. No doubt, racial discrimination faced him at every turn — in Dubuque, at Iowa State University and in the military. Yet he overcame it and served his country with courage and valor.
The late Tuskegee Airman was back in the news last week, when it was reported that, after congressional approval and pending the president’s signature, the post office in the Chicago suburb of Olympic Fields, Ill., where Martin lived many years, will be named in his memory.
That’s all great for Olympia Fields and Martin’s legacy. But what about Dubuque? Shouldn’t his hometown likewise honor this late native son? Given Dubuque’s unflattering history regarding race, especially during the years he was a Boy Scout and student here, it would be all the more fitting that this city honor and celebrate someone who overcame injustices to serve our country with distinction.
Further, rather than slapping his name on any old building or street or park, it would be especially appropriate to link Martin’s name with aviation.
How about at Dubuque Regional Airport? The Robert L. Martin terminal? Robert L. Martin Field? Can motorists still find their way to and from the airport parking lot on Robert L. Martin Drive rather than Aviation Drive?
Whatever is done, there should be a nice plaque (or even a statue) at or in the terminal telling Martin’s story and expressing his hometown’s pride, belated as it might be, for his courageous connection to history.