Robert Leander Martin was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. Martin was born on February 9, 1919 to unnamed parents in Dubuque, Iowa. His mother died shortly after his birth. Martin became inspired to become a pilot after attending an air show when he was thirteen years old. After graduating from high school, Martin enrolled at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. While there he learned to fly in a civilian pilot training program before graduating from the institution in 1942 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.
Martin entered the Tuskegee flight training program, the only one the U.S. Army sponsored to train black pilots for military combat. He graduated from flight training at the Tuskegee Army Airfield in Tuskegee, Alabama on January 7, 1944. He was assigned to the 100th Fighter Squadron, based in Ramitelli, Italy, which escorted Allied bombers on missions in Europe.
On March 3, 1945, Martin was on his 64th mission when he was cut down by anti-aircraft fire during an allied bombing raid over Zagreb, Yugoslavia. Martin parachuted to the ground and found shelter in a farmhouse. He was later rescued by Yugoslav partisans (guerrillas fighting the Nazis) and taken to the headquarters of Marshal Josip Tito, their commander. The guerrillas helped Martin return to Allied forces, and after his recovery, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with six Oak Leaf Clusters, and the Purple Heart for his heroism.
After World War II ended, Martin return to the United States but immediately ran into racial discrimination since most electrical engineering firms did not hire African American engineers. He was forced to hold odd jobs including factory work and driving a taxi. Finally, sometime around 1949 he was hired to work as a draftsman by the Chicago Park District. Eventually, he was promoted and worked as an electrical engineer for the city of Chicago until his retirement in 1988.
In 2007, Martin was one of the recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal in a ceremony held by President George W. Bush at the White House to honor the Tuskegee Airmen. Robert Leander Martin died from pneumonia on July 26, 2018 in Olympia Fields, Illinois at the age of 99. He is survived by his wife of 68 years, Odette Ewell, and their adult children, Gabrielle, Noelle, Dominique, and Robert Martin Jr.