By Lesley Atkinson, Fort Lee Public Affairs
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FORT LEE, Va. – Retired Lt. Col. Louis F. Martin has seen and experienced a lot over his nearly 100 years of life.
The former Army logistician and Colonial Heights resident overcame tough life-changing obstacles like the lack of educational opportunities for African-Americans of the early 20th century, the Great Depression and the segregation of colored troops serving their country during World War II.
It’s not those types of moments he chooses to dwell on these days, however. The spry nonagenarian focuses on the positive things he can do for his community like promoting patriotism, educating youth and giving back through volunteer service.
“Negative thinking does not move you forward,” Martin observed. “I don’t feel like anybody owes me anything. Over my lifetime I took advantage of every opportunity I could. I worked hard, slept well, and ate and drank in moderation. I followed my parents in their religious beliefs. My father built a cubicle under the step for his Bible study. He took the family to church and sang in the choir. He was a leader at home and in his profession. I can’t sing, but I never miss church or Bible study. I like to think I’m a reflection of my dad.”
Born July 3, 1917, in Princess Anne on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Martin and his twin sister were the eldest of 12 siblings, six of whom have since passed away. His parents were college-educated, a rare achievement among African -Americans at that point in history. They met at Virginia’s Hampton Institute where his father majored in Agriculture Education and his mother studied home economics.
“My father was raised in a Quaker orphanage and was sent to college by the Quakers who encouraged minorities to improve themselves through education,” Martin recalled. “My mother, the oldest of 12 children, wanted a college education so she would not be a domestic servant like her mother.”
His dad later served as the first black agriculture extension agent in Maryland. His mom stayed home to raise the children and did part-time work typing her husband’s year-end reports.
Raising a large family on basically one salary was not easy, Martin noted. The children pitched in as soon as they were old enough. “We worked as ‘domestic migrants,’ harvesting crops by the bushel or by the hour,” he said. “We walked the fields by day and hulled beans at night.”
Only 15 percent of African-Americans in rural communities had formal schooling at that point in history. The “lucky ones,” like Martin, attended segregated learning institutions with substandard curriculums. Advanced education was practically non-existent. Sixteen states did not have government-sanctioned colleges or universities for black individuals.
In 1935, Martin found his way into a five-year work-study program at his parent’s alma mater. Like his father, he chose agriculture – one of the few college majors available to black male students.
At Hampton, Martin drove a wagon around campus selling fruit, vegetables and peanuts to students and faculty. “I made 15 cents an hour during the school year and worked through summer break making 25 cents an hour, which was actually a lot of money at that time,” he said.
For clarification, “that time” was the recovery years of the Great Depression, a period when the unemployment rate in America topped 25 percent.
“My brother Walter came to Hampton the year after me,” Martin said. “At the end of my sophomore year, the college treasurer told us if we did not have $150 each for the fall semester, we couldn’t come back. We decided to transfer to a college near home so we could finish our schooling and make it possible for our younger siblings to have the same opportunity.”
Graduating in 1940, Martin took a job at Cooksville High School, the first African-American learning institution of its kind in Howard County, Md. Teaching vocational agriculture, he was the only male on the six-member staff, and thus earned the additional title “dean of men” for the 32 farm-boy students. He had to review their farm projects after school and on Saturdays.
“In my mind, I had made it,” Martin said. “I was serving as a role model to my students and community. My parent’s vision was now mine.”
Until the outside world stepped in.
In March of 1941, Martin, 23, was drafted. It started a lineage of military service in his family. All five of his younger brothers eventually joined various branches of the armed forces. Twin sister Lourene completed a 22-year hitch as an Army nurse.
Martin was sent to Camp Lee for basic training. He was assigned to the all-black 9th Regiment where the drillmaster specialized in “giving college students and teachers a hard time.” After that, the Army ignored his advanced schooling and tagged him as a lower-enlisted Soldier with orders to the 48th Truck Regiment at Fort Benning, Ga. There, he served as a file clerk working with military orders. The subservient role was one he chose not to accept as the only college graduate in the regiment.
“One day at a meeting, the colonel asked if anyone wanted to go to (officer candidate school),” Martin recalled. “The people I worked with knew I wanted to go, and mentioned my name. The colonel said, ‘have him put in the application,’ so I did. I thought I was finally going to make use of my advanced education.”
The dream was interrupted by a declaration of war on Dec. 7, 1941. Three weeks later, his regiment was transferred to California with follow-on orders to the Pacific Theater. Martin was reassigned to a service unit at Camp Gruber, Okla., an Army cantonment born in much the same way as Camp Lee. Their call for recruits with “strong backs and weak minds,” was not something he particularly cared for, but he focused his attention on the duties assigned.
“They gave us 200 laborers who had been in the Army for five days,” he said. “You were supposed to go to basic for 13 weeks, but because of the war, they were trying to get them in quick. I had to help train them and give them their orders.”
Martin’s stalled attempt to become an officer was jumpstarted by an unusual favor. A shy officer in his unit asked him to invite “a pretty lady” to a dance. She accepted and Martin seized the opportunity to “put a bug in his ear” about the unprocessed packet. One social event and a well-placed word to the personnel officer later, he was on his way.
“(In 1943), the Quartermaster School at Camp Lee started a new class every other week,” Martin said. “The school house was in the old Army barracks back then. The initial class size was around 750 but only 500 or less reached graduation. The attrition rate was fairly high, and those who didn’t make it were usually shipped off to combat units.”
Successful in his OCS studies, Martin acquired brass on his collar but it didn’t translate to greater respect from other white Soldiers or the American public. That became clear when he and other black officers headed for Alabama to join truck companies for the Air Service Command. Nobody arranged for them to be picked up at the rail station.
“There was no transportation for us, so we had to walk to the bus station carrying our bags and other belongings,” Martin said. “On the road, some kids saw us and ran ahead knocking on doors yelling, ‘here come a bunch of monkeys.’ There’s no describing how something like that makes you feel. Sad, yes. Angry, definitely, because you know it’s out of pure hatred even though we were wearing the Army uniform.”
Even Martin’s first assignment as a company commander lacked luster. In the waning days of World War II, General Patton was “grabbing every Soldier he could get” for his advance across Northern France and stateside units were typically undermanned and ineffective.
“Black officers were basically floaters who didn’t really have much authority,” he said.
Martin played a more direct role in the allies’ defeat of Nazi Germany while assigned to the 8th Army Air Force in England. There, he served in a unit that moved manpower, munitions and general supplies to the airdrome supporting troops downrange. When he discovered illiterate drivers in his organization, he adjusted convoy schedules to ensure someone capable of reading a map was with each group so they could find their way back to camp if they got lost.
“I’m also proud of the fact I never broke the rules,” Martin noted, and added with a hint of embarrassment, “The only gig I ever got on an inspection was for not lacing my boots to the top. I have a high in-step and to lace my shoe to the last hole can be a problem. Why that still bothers me, I have no idea.”
After the war, the 30,000 officers from three star on down who were serving “for the convenience of the government” were given a choice to stay another year or get out, according to Martin. “Like most, my decision was based on work prospects back home,” he said. “Where would I find an agriculture job in November? So, I asked to stay for the extra year but my request was denied.”
He was relieved from active duty in 1946, but continued to serve off and on in the Army Reserve.
“I found work in a federal program that taught agricultural skills to military veterans,” Martin said. “My wife and I had our only child, Sheila, at that time. When the program ended, I used the GI Bill to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Illinois. Upon graduation, I accepted a faculty position at Florida A&M University. My wife earned her master’s degree while we lived in Florida. In 1959, we moved to Virginia where I accepted a position with Virginia State University.”
By the time he retired from the military in 1972, Martin had achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel with credit for six years of active duty and 22 years of reserve service.
“My daughter continued the family tradition by attending Hampton Institute,” Martin said. “She paid further homage to family associations by getting married on Fort Lee.”
Now widowed, Sheila lives with her father and jokingly refers to herself as “his social secretary and housekeeper.”
Recently, Martin was able to visit the World War II memorial with other veterans through a nonprofit program called the Honor Flight Network. The pride he said he felt during that visit, and the sense of acceptance as a member of America’s Greatest Generation, served as “the fitting closing chapter” to a career of honorable military service.