Monday, July 4, marks the anniversary of the ratification of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, commonly referred to as Independence Day. It is usually associated with hotdogs, fireworks, and price-slashing online/in-store shopping, with little thought of the heroes who have helped preserve our precious freedom. And although we have several occasions to remember our military heroes, Independence Day celebrations should include their memory as well.
I had the honor to know one of those real heroes, Retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Samuel A. Martin, Jr. from Lawrenceville, Georgia. Sam, as we all knew him, lived to be 93 years old. Three years before his passing, I had the privilege to interview him for our neighborhood newsletter, and it shocked me to find out that for years, I lived two blocks from a real hero.
In a busy, stressful world where we eat on the run, never catch up on much-needed sleep, and seldom find the time to visit with friends, it’s no wonder we celebrate our nation’s independence with little thought of the price others have paid to preserve life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Over the years, the families of Lawrenceville, GA, like so many others, have sent their loved ones to wars and skirmishes that should have been deemed wars. We have seen families rise to support their veterans as they returned home with lifelong injuries and sadly mourn the loss of others. The price of freedom remains high!
Many of the residents and their families of our Craigdale neighborhood served this country bravely. One, retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Samuel A. Martin, Jr., is a veteran of World War II and Vietnam. With over twenty-five years of distinguished service, including overseas duties in Europe, Morocco, Japan, and Vietnam, his story is one of pride and perseverance
At the age of 90 (his age at the time the article was written), he is mentally sharper and more interesting than most who are 50 years his junior. He is refreshingly open and humble as he recalls the details of his long military career.
Born in Lawrenceville, GA in 1921, Sam (as his neighbors have always known him) attended Lawrenceville High School and North Georgia College. He entered active duty in February 1943, and by November, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force.
In 1944, while assigned to the 57th Fighter Group in Corsica, he flew 72 combat missions before being shot down north of Bologna, Italy.
He described, with the clarity of a recent event, his attempt to bring the failing P-47 to a safe landing in enemy territory. The engine failed 5000 feet off the ground. When he decided to jump, his harness became caught in the cock pit. He finally shook it loose and was able to jump from the plane. When the plane’s tail passed by, he pulled the rip cord. And, just after his parachute opened, he hit the ground.
“Then,” he said, “I ran and ran and ran until they caught me.”
German soldiers put him in the front passenger seat of their vehicle. The most frightening moment came when he turned and saw a burp machine gun pointed inches from his head.
As a POW (Prisoner of War), he was imprisoned in Stalag Luft III, 90 miles from Berlin.
Sam never mentioned the book, “The Great Escape,” written by an Australian fighter pilot Paul Chester Jerome Brickhill, or the 1963 movie by the same name, with Steve McQueen’s famous motorcycle jump. Both were set in Stalag Luft III. And, I didn’t think to ask his opinion on either. I always thought there would be time to find out more.
After writing the article, I was surprised to learn that the Stalag Luft III POW camp eventually grew to 60 acres in size and held approximately 10,949 prisoners, including 7,500 US military personnel. It is estimated that more than 120,000 Americans were held prisoner during WWII. Sam never dwelled on the fear of the uncertain future that must have plagued all who were imprisoned during WWII.
He was transferred to Mooseburg in Southern Germany. The POW camp held men from all ranks, including a Brigadier General. He said they could see the city of Mooseburg from the camp. Then one day, when they saw the 3rd Army raise the stars and stripes in the distance, they knew they were going home!
He was liberated in May of 1945. His total time as a POW was about one year, during which, and according to his Mom, the whole town of Lawrenceville was praying for him.
Over the years, our neighbor served the country he loved, flying everything from P-47 fighters in his first training school and C-47s soon after that to an AC-119 Gunship in Vietnam.
Ten years after his time as a POW, he married his wife in 1954. There is no doubt that he considered his career in the military, after marriage, a joint venture. He spoke proudly of Elaine’s strength and gave many examples, none of which was more definitive than when she was left with a 6-week-old baby at the Tachikawa Air Force Base as he was called to duty in Northern Japan.
Lieutenant Colonel Sam Martin’s account of his time in Vietnam:
“My last and probably most satisfying assignment was flying the AC-119 gunship with four 50 caliber machine guns, a spotlight in the cargo compartment, and a gun site in the cock pit. You could fly the airplane and shoot the guns at the same time. We flew at night, supporting the army outposts. Since I had previously flown the C-119 as a cargo ship, I accepted the opportunity for gunship training, a refresher course in the 119, and reassignment to Vietnam.
We flew at night, answering calls from Army troops under attack. Using the spotlight along with the four 50-caliber machine guns, we were able to assist. The pure relief in the voices of the army spokesmen as we arrived was very satisfying. However, every once in a while, I thought, “What’s a fifty-year-old man doing fighting a war at night?” It was a job. Someone had to do it.”
Our neighbor served in many capacities during his military career, including Air Defense Exercise officer for the Southeast area of the US and Commander of the 5th Communications Sq., 315 Air Division in Japan.
The following list of decorations and service awards was taken directly from Lieutenant Colonel Martin’s service retirement ceremony program in 1973:
Distinguished Flying Cross
Air Medal with Eight Oak Leaf Clusters
Air Force Commendation Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster
Presidential Unit Citation
Distinguished Unit Citation
European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal
World War II Victory Medal
National Defense Service Medal with One Bronze Service Star
Vietnam Service Medal
Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal
Air Force Longevity Service Award with Five Oak Leaf Clusters