For his 90th birthday, Oklahoma City resident John Martin received the usual cards and cake and even a few gifts, but he also received three medals that were long overdue.
Martin was presented with the Victory Medal, American Campaign Medal and Good Conduct Medal by Brig. Gen. Gregory Ferguson, commander of the Oklahoma Air National Guard, on Sunday in southwest Oklahoma City.
Martin was just 19 when he entered service in World War II, serving as a gunner on a B-24 bomber in the 8th Air Force's 466th Bombardment Group in Europe.
Martin flew 30 missions on his B-24, but even before he fired his first shot in combat as a gunner, Martin cheated death. He was hospitalized with an illness for two months after he finished up his basic and secondary training.
While he was in the hospital, his original unit was sent to the Pacific. That crew took off on its first mission and was never heard from again.
“Many times I have thought about that,” Martin said of his brush with death. “Really, it made me more thankful and appreciative of everything good that has come my way.”
After the war, Martin returned home and became a salesman. He and his wife, Margaret, had three kids and settled in 1961 into life in Oklahoma City, where they have remained ever since. Martin knew he had earned two of the medals but had more or less forgotten about them.
Joe Thomas, a retired Air Force officer himself, became friendly with Martin while attending Trinity Church of the Nazarene in Oklahoma City. A World War II buff, Thomas began looking at Martin's military records and discovered he was due to receive the three medals. Thomas wrote to the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records and the medals were approved, eventually.
“I think they were long overdue,” Thomas said. “He never said anything. He didn't ask me to do it. I just came across it on my own when I went through his records. He should have gotten the Purple Heart, but there aren't any witnesses because he is the only surviving member of two aircrews. I've told him, ‘I don't know if we'll be successful, but at least we'll try.'”
The board initially declined to approve the Good Conduct Medal, but it was later granted after more documentation was submitted, along with a note from Thomas.
“I showed them the missions he had flown on and what he did, and I wrote at the bottom, ‘If this doesn't qualify for good conduct, I don't know what does,'” Thomas said.
Even after approval, Thomas was told the Air Force did not have money to provide the medals. Undaunted, family and friends chipped in to have them made locally.
The Purple Heart may prove more elusive. Martin was wounded when his canopy was shattered by fire from a German fighter, but he is the sole survivor of two aircrews. There are no witnesses to his injuries, something Thomas said is necessary to receive a Purple Heart.
The fact he survived 30 missions is a miracle in itself, Thomas said. Bomber crews were only supposed to fly 25 missions, but five more were added after he completed what was supposed to be his last flight. The life expectancy for aircrews during the war was about 11 missions, Thomas said.
“So many of these guys didn't survive,” he said. “They didn't make it. It's amazing he made it as long as he did.”
Martin said he would display the medals in his home, along with the rest of his war memorabilia. He was joined by his wife at the ceremony Sunday. His son, Jack, led a slideshow of photos from each era of Martin's life.
He said he was especially grateful for Thomas' work on his behalf.
“He's a fine fellow,” Martin said.
“He's done quite a bit for me, and I appreciate it. As I said before, today was the first time I've ever gotten to shake hands with a general.”