He was born in an undertaker’s house.
And so life began for Richard E. Martin, who has danced alongside death in striking fashion through all of his 97 years.
Remarkably, one of York County’s greatest survivors remains inspired to do more. He still drives his car to church, to doctor appointments and to pick up a meal at the Central Family Restaurant. He mows his grass. The accomplished architect and artist plans on painting again with his favorite water colors.
He grew tired of living at a retirement community, almost as if needing another challenge. So when he tested negative for COVID-19 last month, he gathered his belongings and moved out with the help of his daughter and son.
He wants to live as he chooses, which is exactly what he vowed to protect when he signed up for World War II. His quick wit and pleasant smiles still smooth the edge from a brazen determination that hasn’t just fueled him, but has surely helped keep him safe.
From the time he was pronounced dead as a child to nearly being blown to bits in the war. From cancer to brain surgery to a global pandemic.
He gives in to only what he absolutely must. He talks softer now, moves slower and has to be reminded to push his protective mask over his face.
“‘You’re very stubborn, and that’s good,'” his daughter, Joy Best, told him during a recent backyard conversation. “If he wasn’t stubborn I don’t think he would be alive.
“That’s pretty much his view of his whole life: ‘Don’t tell me I can’t do something, I’ll show you.'”
Nearly buried alive
He runs his fingers over the dent in his head.
It’s an opening to the surreal story of his first brush with death.
The way he and his family tell it, Martin was 10 years old when he and his older brother tested fresh snow in York’s Farquhar Park.
He ignored the warnings of his mother. He trudged to the top of the hill and launched his wooden sled anyway.
He never remembered reaching the bottom.
Along the way he slammed head-first into a granite block covering a storm culvert, instantly breaking his jaw, fracturing his skull and knocking himself unconscious.
He was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Soon after, his uncle undertaker — who owned the house where he was born — transported him to the morgue. His mother insisted to see to him one last time. There, she noticed one of his eyes flickering, then the other.
Martin still remembers waking to see his mother’s gloved hands.
He would slowly recover with his grandparents, who lived a block away from his home on York’s Pershing Avenue. There, he would have quiet as well as a bathroom with indoor plumbing.
From the Great Depression to World War II
He gained early and equal doses of toughness and an appreciation for simple gifts. He lost two siblings to illness just as the Great Depression began to suffocate his family.
His father’s machinist work at the American Chain Co. was reduced to nearly nothing, so he earned a few dollars cleaning basements and garages, anything he could find. To help, Martin pulled a wagon to the nearby soup kitchen to collect meals and to sell his grandmother’s home-made candy.
But he was was alive and thankful, and the world seemed to be for his taking. He earned some of the best grades in his class at York High, particularly with math and wood working.
He enlisted in the Navy nine months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and was assigned to diesel engine training. He was just 19. He learned how to help run experimental, flat-bottomed ships called LSTs (Landing, Ship, Tank), which would be used to carry men and equipment onto the beaches during attacks.
Eventually, Martin shipped overseas to prepare for invasions in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and Normandy.
His LST crawled across the Atlantic at 9 mph, zigzagging through storms and German attacks. These slow-moving ships lugged immense cargo, such as armored vehicles and up to 200 soldiers, and were easy targets in the open ocean. Many were wiped out by torpedoes or underwater mines.
When Martin wasn’t working on the ship’s engines, he was manning a topside 20 mm anti-aircraft gun.
And he survived, again and again.
He describes a scene near a North African port when he was standing on the LST’s deck, talking to other sailors.
A German bomber surprised them overhead.
“We heard a roar and a plane came across us from the stern to the bow, dropped two bombs, strafed and kept going. … This was my first taste of warfare,” he wrote in the notes of his family memoirs.
He was unharmed.
Another time, his LST rescued members of a torpedoed tug and salvage ship, the USS Redwing. The explosion catapulted some men overboard to their deaths; ruptured steam engines scorched others.
He will never forget the burned bodies of those they tended to. He still hears their screams.
He paused when talking about it recently, choking up as he looked away.
“I can still smell them when there’s something burning,” he said, his voice fading. “You never get over it.”
A foot from death
He slid his fingers down the side of his right leg as he talked.
The metal embedded there from more than 75 years ago still makes it difficult to walk. It has always bothered him.
He tells the story: His LST crew was loading up at night in a deep-water port in Tunisia when enemy planes attacked.
Martin and two others jumped on the port-side gun. The German bombs and Allied anti-aircraft fire filled the sky like a barrage of white fireworks.
A shell landed near Martin and exploded.
Thankfully, not a foot closer.
The shrapnel still ripped into both of his legs, though he didn’t notice at first because of his adrenaline and the chaos. When he finally looked down, his pants were shredded, his legs covered in blood.
There was no official doctor on board. Martin said he and two other injured sailors were quickly patched up by a young corpsman and urged to leave the ship for hospital treatment. Martin refused.
“If this ship goes to the big invasion,” he said, “I’m going to be there.”
All of it built toward June of 1944.
His LST-325 left the southwest coast of England on June 5 after weeks of training exercises. It carried part of the 5th Special Engineer Brigade and was a back-up force for troops hitting Normandy’s beaches the following day.
As they waited off shore the Allied naval fleet opened fire on the German fortifications on Omaha Beach at first light. Martin watched the Germans retaliate by attempting to blast the larger ships around them, mostly missing.
“I could hold my hand up and feel the shells crossing because when a 6-inch shell goes by it stirs a lot of air. I couldn’t have touched it, but it was close.”
Some LSTs were hit and sunk making their way onto the shore. Others miscalculated and made their drops in water too deep for men carrying 70-pound packs.
Martin’s LST transferred men and machinery to other ships. They landed on Utah Beach a few days later, after much of the area was secure. In all, as many as 4,000 Allied troops lost their lives in the Normandy invasion, countless more wounded or missing.
Over the final 10 months of the war, LST-325 made 43 round trips between England and France — Martin proudly recalled how each landing was precisely executed.
“We’d load and hit the beach, and the Army would learn to drive off our ship and down a ramp and hit the sand. Because if they got stuck, that would have been it,” he said.
Always, he dreamed of a life still to live. He said he constantly re-read an architecture book he had taken from home.
He returned safely to York County two days before Christmas, 1945.
Creating a place to worship
He quickly set out on his next goals.
He married Jacqueline Loucks, a York High classmate, seven months after returning from the war. They would have two children.
He wanted to design and create, and was determined to learn from the best. Only after landing a job at Buchart Engineering Corp. in York did he study architecture and fine arts in Italy, France and at Harvard University.
His love became religious buildings, partly because of the symmetry between beauty and functionality, partly because of his faith. He began singing in the choir at St. John’s Episcopal Church at age 9 and still attends services on North Beaver Street.
His York County projects include the Temple Beth Israel synagogue, the Messiah United Methodist Church, the Maranatha Church of God and Dillsburg Brethren in Christ.
He still looks over many of the blueprints and design plans for his more than 250 projects, which range from retirement institutions to private homes. He continued working on plans until just a few years ago.
Winning wars in his 90s
It’s as if he thrives on being forced to rise up and fight again.
He was diagnosed with breast cancer at 91 and underwent successful mastectomy surgery and oral chemotherapy.
A few years later, a couple of hard falls on his head after losing his balance — once when he was sculpting in his garage — led to brain bleeds and seizures.
He managed well through brain surgery, recovery and easing back into caring for himself at the Country Meadows Retirement Community in West Manchester Township. He liked it well enough but seemingly became bored.
He figured there must be more people to meet, more art to create, more summer evenings to look over the fields and into the city where he grew up and still loves. He did, after all, delight in conquering an online physics class at 93.
The man who usually wears a dress shirt and slacks, if not a coat and tie, recently took time to look back over his survivals at his home in Manchester Township. That includes a Purple Heart he earned during the bombing that filled his legs with shrapnel.
He’s certainly one of the only sailors still alive from those initial 100 who served on the LST-325, which is now on display at a museum in Evansville, Indiana.
“I don’t think I’m a hero, I just had guts enough to join.”
He says that, raising his voice to make a point.
Because his life’s guide has been to breathe all of his being into each opportunity presented, every problem to solve, every person to greet.
Those around him are still inspired.
“When he talks you can see the emotion and love he has for others in his life, for the things he’s done in life,” said Karen Frey, a nurse who cared for Martin during his breast cancer and has become a personal friend.
“I think he gives hope in the way he lives his life. And we all need hope.”
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