An American flag always flies outside the small cottage at the Franklin United Methodist Community.
Robert Martin has set a flag out every day since he became a U.S. citizen in 1950. He fought for that flag, and his involvement in the military laid the foundation for his career and helped him buy his first house.
But for a short time, he remembers when it represented the enemy.
Martin has experienced two unique perspectives of military service. The two-year veteran of the U.S. Army served during the Korean War as a photographer, just a few years after being drafted as a teenager into the German army to fight in World War II.
He credits the U.S. Army with saving his life.
“It was very positive arrangement, the fact that as a former enemy, if you would call it that, could now speak on the other side with nothing but positive feelings,” he said.
“It’s certainly not every day that you’re serving two armies, one after another.”
Martin doesn’t keep any signs of his military service around his house, other than an American flag. The 86-year-old downplays his service, stressing that there was nothing extraordinary about it. He doesn’t like to talk about it much, only sharing with close friends at the Methodist community, said his wife, Florence Martin.
Though his story was recorded by then-Sen. Richard Lugar’s Veterans History Project and is kept on file at the Library of Congress, he has listened to a copy of the recording just a few times.
“There was no heroism involved in any of it. I was there and I was here,” he said.
But every year for Veterans Day, he takes part in the military programs hosted at the retirement community. He understands the sacrifice that so many people have made for their country and holds fellow veterans in high esteem.
Martin grew up near Munich, Germany, in the 1930s. Much of his family were tool-and-die makers and had emigrated to the United States in the early 1900s to work for the Ford Motor Co.
But Martin stayed behind with his parents. When World War II broke out, he was unable to leave. As a 16-year-old, he was drafted into the German army in 1944.
His father, who also served in the war, was killed on the Russian front.
During his first experience in combat, Martin was wounded. His battalion was stationed in the Hürtgen Forest, a rugged area of dense pine forests.
The 800 men were mobilized to impede the progress of the U.S. Army, either by blowing up bridges, destroying rail lines or blocking roads.
On Oct. 12, 1944, the men were clearing the road of mines and booby-traps so that their tanks could travel through. Advancing American troops descended on the unit, and with no tanks to back them up, the German soldiers were heavily wounded.
“We were completely wiped out. There were no standing soldiers left. Those who were alive were wounded,” he said.
‘A propaganda item’
Martin was hit by shrapnel, cutting his head and fracturing his skull. An American soldier helped dress the wounds, applied first aid and carried him back to his own first-aid station.
U.S. soldiers also collected cigarettes, chocolate bars and loaves of bread to give the wounded German. That generosity and decency, even for the enemy, stuck with Martin.
“Having been brought up under the doctrine of Nazi Germany, I was surprised to find the attitude expressed by the American soldiers being so much different than what we were told,” he said. “Our inclination was always that the enemy was evil, and that they were doing things an upstanding young German would never do. That simply was not true.
“We also found out that the so-called superiority of the German army was in many ways a myth. It was a propaganda item.”
Martin did not see combat for the rest of the war. After Germany surrendered, he returned to his hometown to care for his widowed mother. They were lucky enough to be living inside the American-occupied part of the country and worked with officials on emigrating to the U.S.
His uncles, already living in Detroit, helped by offering work.
“There are a lot of Germans in Indiana, but a lot of people hated the Germans at that time. Not just anyone could come over; you had to have someone who supported you here,” Florence Martin said.
Finally, in 1950, he and his mother were granted passage to the U.S. Upon reaching their new home, Martin was told he had been drafted into the U.S. Army to fight in the Korean War, which had just started three days earlier.
When he asked the man at the service board how that was possible, that he had been fighting against the U.S. Army just five years earlier, Martin was told that they needed experienced soldiers. Service was a condition of becoming a citizen.
Having survived one war, Martin was hesitant to be thrust into another.
‘Nothing but a blessing’
Not until he was in the Army did he realize the benefits of service. His mother was sick with asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Martin’s service meant that he could take her to a military hospital near Fort Lewis in Washington to get top-notch care.
Also, being a member of the military gave the 20-year-old a fitting retort to some of the anti-German sentiment that still was strong in the country.
“It gave me a good potential answer when someone suggested the Germans were detrimental to the U.S. All I had to do was point to my honorable discharge from the American Army,” he said.
Martin was a photographer in the service, working with high-ranking officers at Fort Lewis on official Army projects. The commanding general at the time wrote him a letter of commendation when he was up for discharge.
While serving in Washington, he met Florence, who has been his wife for nearly 60 years. Service also meant he was eligible for a low-interest loan. He took advantage of that to buy the first house he and Florence Martin moved into.
“Looking back into it, being drafted so soon into the U.S. Army so soon after my arrival in the United States has been nothing but a blessing I have held on to all of these many years,” he said.
After his discharge, Martin worked in various professions. He did animation for movie studios in the 1950s and later found work as a salesman for a department store offshoot of Marshall Fields in Seattle, selling Oriental rugs.
The Martins’ son moved to central Indiana six years ago, and Robert and Florence Martin followed them. They now live at the Franklin United Methodist Community. He is an avid stamp collector, and both are active in community activities and excursions.
Thinking back to his service, his recollections of the American soldiers were very positive. They were respectful and took pity on him when he was wounded. That’s what he tends to focus on every Veterans Day.
“I could not understand why we could not cooperate more than what we did,” he said. “I still have fond memories of the time I was literally life-saved by the American Army.”