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Martin, Robert Lee

Published onJul 30, 2021
Martin, Robert Lee

(February 9, 1919 — July 26, 2018)

Quick Facts

African-American Iowa State graduate, member, Tuskegee Flying Airmen in World War II and honored for his heroism, electrical engineer. 


Robert Lee Martin was born on February 9, 1919 in Dubuque, Iowa, a son of Dr. Henry A. Martin and Mattie Martin. His mother died shortly after his birth.  Dr. Henry Martin was the son of a former slave and worked at various jobs until about the age of 40.  He then attended and graduated from the Illinois College of Chiropody and Orthopedics (later the Illinois College of Podiatric Medicine) in 1916 after which he established his medical practice in Dubuque.  Perhaps because of his own struggles, Dr. Henry Martin told all nine of his children, ”Get an education; once you have it, it can't be taken away from you.” 

Robert adopted his father Henry's philosophy early in life.  He joined the Boy Scouts even when some parents threatened to take their boys out of scouting.  One of his children later 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.”  At the age of thirteen, he went to an air show, became fascinated with air flight, and decided that he wanted to become a pilot.  Dr. Martin allowed Robert to take a ride in a Ford Trimotor at about that time, further stimulating his enthusiasm for flying.  He attended Dubuque Senior High School and graduated in 1936.

Several years later, Martin attended Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) and majored in electrical engineering.  While studying at Iowa State, he was a member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (A.I.E.E.), the Ames YMCA, and the Winter Sports Club.  He also participated in VEISHEA and played football.  He finished a civilian pilot training program, joked that “you could get silver wings and get all the girls,” and also joined the Pilots Club on campus.  He graduated from Iowa State in 1942, but before graduation he had already applied to join the U.S. Army Air Corps. 

After being accepted, he started training at Fort Dodge near Des Moines.  He was later transferred to the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskegee, Alabama where he was trained in the Black Pilot program, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.  The armed forces were racially segregated at that time, and Martin recalled in an interview years later that Tuskegee was “segregated where they wanted it.”  Students, ground crews, mechanics, medics, and quartermasters were all black, but senior personnel were all white.  “You saluted them, you said 'Yes, sir,' but you didn't have personal conversations with them... In the blink of an eyelash, they could send an aspiring pilot to perdition.”  Black students had their own classes, flew on different airstrips, and ate in separate dining halls.

Martin graduated from Tuskegee on January 7, 1944 and was assigned to the 100th Fighter Squadron which was part of the all-black 332nd Fighter Group based in Italy.  He experienced a mishap in December when his P-51 Mustang was forced to land in Italy and the propeller was damaged, but Martin walked away uninjured.  

Martin flew a total of 64 missions, but he always maintained that it was 63 1/2 missions.  In March, 1945, he and seven other pilots were sent to destroy some railroad facilities near Graz in Austria.  After shooting at a target, antiaircraft fire hit his plane, and he was forced to bail out over German occupied Yugoslavia near Zagreb in Croatia.  On the ground he found shelter in a farmhouse and was taken the next day to a group of Yugoslav anti-German partisans who sheltered him for about five weeks.  He was able to return to Italy and to his base, arriving there on April 8.  As a result, Martin was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart, and the Air Medal with six Oak Leaf Clusters.  At the end of the war in September, 1945, he was discharged with the rank of captain.  After his discharge, he continued to serve in the Army Air Corps Reserve.

Returning to civilian life, Martin again experienced discrimination after fighting for his country.  Although holding a degree from Iowa State in electrical engineering, he had trouble finding employment.  He worked a variety of jobs which included driving taxis and working in factories. He was finally hired to be a draftsman for the Chicago Park District and was then hired to work as an electrical engineer for the city of Chicago.  He worked for the city for 37 years. 

Martin married Odette Ewell in Chicago, Illinois on August 21, 1950.  They were married for 68 years until his death, and they had four children;  Gabrielle, Noelle, Dominique, and Robert Martin, Jr.  His daughter, Gabrielle, recalled that her father never talked about his war experiences, but that with his wife's encouragement, later opened and talked about his experiences.  He lived to be 99 years old, and in his later years he was further honored for his heroism in World War II.  He was interviewed on a number of occasions, including one with John Callaway with the Pritzker Military Library in 2008 and with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2009.  In 2006, he was inducted into the Iowa Aviation Museum Hall of Fame along with other Tuskegee Airmen.  In 2007, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in a ceremony in Statuary Hall in the nation's capitol in Washington, D.C. honoring the Tuskegee Airmen.  In 2010, he was among those honored at Simpson College with the 2010 George Washington Carver Medal. 

Robert Lee Martin died of pneumonia at a senior living facility in Olympia Fields, Illinois on July 26, 2018.

Selected Sources

Nearly all sources on the life of Robert Lee Martin were found online.  Concise biographical essays on both Robert Martin and his father, Dr. Henry A. Martin, can be found in the Encyclopedia Dubuque at   

A listing of the pilot graduates from Tuskegee can be found at

The interview with John Callaway can be found at

A news story based on an interview with Martin was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 26, 2009. 

Information on his induction into the Iowa Aviation Museum Hall of Fame is found on several of the museum's websites. 

Many obituaries were published on Martin's life.  A sampling includes the Washington Post, August 4, 2018; the Birmingham Patch (Alabama), August 7, 2018; the Dubuque Herald, August 1, 2018; and the Iowa State University College of Engineering News, August 5, 2018. 

Information on his marriage and the Martin family can be found in the U. S. Censuses for 1910, 1920, 1930, and 1940 on  Also, a photograph of Martin can be found in a 1935 Dubuque High School yearbook at the same website.

The one offline source used here was from the 1942 Iowa State Bomb which includes a formal graduation photograph, a group photograph of the A.I.E.E., and a listing of his campus activities.  See pages 56, 103, and 421.

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