Dubuque recently lost one of its great pilots.
Robert Martin, 99, hadn’t flown in more than 50 years, but the time he spent in the air during his youth more than made up for it. The Dubuque native died Thursday at his home in Olympia Fields, Ill.
Martin was a military pilot who served in World War II and was part of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-Americans to fly for the U.S. Armed Forces. It was through the efforts of the Tuskegee Airmen that black pilots were integrated into the U.S. Air Force.
During his tour in Europe, Martin flew more than 60 long-range combat missions as part of the 100th Fighter Squadron, defending bomber planes from German attacks.
On March 3, 1945, the 25-year-old first lieutenant was shot down by ground fire over Yugoslavia. With the help of locals, Martin was able to evade capture by the Germans and eventually was recovered by U.S. forces. His family learned of his safe recovery about one month after he was shot down.
His daughter Gabrielle Martin recounted learning about her father’s heroics when she was in third grade.
“He never talked about it,” Gabrielle Martin said. “My mother encouraged him to tell us what he did, and he eventually opened up.”
Robert Martin was born and raised in Dubuque. Outgoing at an early age, he participated in school athletics and other extracurricular programs. Boy Scouts was of particular interest for Martin, who persisted in the program despite attempts from other Scouts’ parents’ to ostracize him.
“Dad could always figure out ways to do things,” Gabrielle said. “He would go to Scout events, and no one else would show up because he was there. But he didn’t let that stop him.”
Robert was a Dubuque Senior High School graduate. While studying electrical engineering at Iowa State University, he applied to join the U.S. Army Air Corps and eventually was enrolled in the military’s new Black Pilot Program.
Robert’s service during World War II earned him numerous medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Gabrielle said her father always was devoted to helping others. Throughout his life, he was a leader for Tuskegee Airmen Inc., traveling throughout the country to educate youth about the group and to introduce them to aviation.
“He was always looking to help others,” Gabrielle said. “That was something that was always important to him.”
That desire to help others extended even to his later years.
Marla Andrews, of New Jersey, is the daughter of Lawrence Dickson, another member of the Tuskegee Airmen. Dickson was declared missing after he crashed in Austria on Dec. 23, 1944.
Robert Martin served as the wingman for Dickson during the war, and he did what he could to help Andrews learn about her father.
“I was just a baby when my father went down, so I was only getting info about him through other people in bits and pieces,” Andrews said. “(Martin) wrote me four beautiful pages detailing what he saw when my father went down. It really meant a lot to me.”
On Friday, human remains recovered from Austria were identified to be Dickson, hours before Martin passed away.
In the last years of his life, Robert Martin took a renewed interest in his hometown of Dubuque. In 2016, he revisited the town and recounted childhood memories.
Some of those memories were positive and some weren’t.
“He told me about one incident where a neighbor threatened to sic his dog on him, on a child,” Gabrielle said. “That was just the time he lived in. He had to deal with that.”
Despite being known as one of the Tuskegee Airmen, Gabrielle said Robert preferred to be remembered as a loving father and devoted husband.
On Thursday, he passed away peacefully at his home. The skies were clear, and the wind was calm that day.
“It was perfect weather for one last flight,” Gabrielle said.