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Veteran recalls service on submarine

ALBANY -- As Edgar Martin sat in a Washington, D.C. train station, a scared 18-year-old away from the segregated deep South for the first time, the disembarkation of a train incoming from the West Coast changed his life forever.

Martin watched in horror as man after man, soldier after soldier, was helped from the train. Each had lost a limb or limbs during fighting in the early stages of World War II.

"That was a bad feeling for an 18-year-old kid, seeing men with an arm, a leg, both legs missing," Martin, a retired postal worker and World War II-era veteran, said during a recent conversation. "I decided right then I would volunteer for submarine duty.

"To this day, service on a sub is still voluntary because of the dangerous nature of the duty. But shortly after seeing those soldiers who had been wounded in combat, when the recruiter came around I said I wanted sub duty. I believed in my heart that God was going to spare me in this war and bring me home, and I wanted to come home in one piece."

There were, Martin soon found out, other benefits to being part of a submarine crew: benefits such as 80 percent higher pay, access to the best food in the Navy and relaxed regulations.

But for someone who'd grown up accepting racial segregation as a part of life, perhaps one of the most unexpected benefits of serving as part of a Navy submarine crew was the absence of overt racism.

"You work in such close quarters on a submarine, it was difficult for anyone to focus on things like that," Martin said. "For the most part, everyone was friendly and there were no vestiges of segregation. Everyone worked together; everyone was glad to help you.

"Growing up in Albany, segregation had been thrust upon me and I accepted it. I understood that black folks went in the side door at the drug store if they wanted to get the same ice cream whites got when they went in the front door. I understood about the different drinking fountains; they were clearly labeled."

Martin was a sophomore at Albany State College when he got his draft notice in 1944. During the assignment process in Columbus, Martin was told he'd been selected to serve in the Navy and was being sent with a segregated group of 18 to Maryland. He was appointed sergeant-at-arms and made responsible for seeing that the group got to its destination.

"That was one case where my education was a disadvantage," he laughed. "I'd asked if I could be sent for training at Great Lakes, Ill., but I was told that since I had the highest education level, I would be acting sergeant-at-arms for the group going to Bainbridge.

"We stopped off in Atlanta, and everyone knew someone there so they all ran around like a bunch of chickens with their heads cut off. But when they got to Washington, all of that was over with."

Paying close attention to the assignment process, Martin figured he could land one of two in-country assignments if he performed well during training.

"We trained to escape from a sub in a 100-foot water tank, and everyone had to start at 25 feet, go to 50 feet and then make a 100-foot escape," he said. "I volunteered to do three escapes at 100 feet, and grading so well in that exercises was one of the reasons I got one of the slots in the states."

Martin's training in Key West centered on helping surface ships detect enemy subs. His general assignment duty was on the boat's 40 mm guns, but he, along with everyone else onboard, had to familiarize himself with the sub's nine compartments.

"We had to be able to identify the pressure capacity of every air pressure line on the sub," he said. "We had to know how to start the engine and generators in the engine room; we had to know how to load and fire torpedoes.

"When you qualified, you got these two dolphin pins signifying your proficiency in all departments of the sub."

After four months of training in Key West, Martin was shipped to New London, Conn., where he was assigned to the U.S.S. Requin, one of the most advanced submarines in the U.S. fleet. The Requin was outfitted with an antenna that, when synchronized with equipment on a specially equipped airplane, allowed the sub to detect surface craft.

This early form of radar, Martin soon learned, was going to make its debut in a planned invasion of Japan.

"We didn't learn until we were out to sea that we were shipping to Japan for an invasion," he said. "Our captain -- a man named Slade Cutter, who had become famous for kicking a field goal that beat Army 3-0 in 1934 -- said we were going to become the most decorated sub crew in the U.S. Navy.

"The plan was for us to use our new equipment to help us 'blow up every boat in Tokyo Harbor,' then take part in the shelling of the city. The feeling was that if we could break the Japs' back with an invasion of Tokyo, it would keep resistance low."

The Requin had shipped from New London and was almost to the Panama Canal when word reached the sub that the United States had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The war was over.

Cutter brought his crew back to New London, and a short while later Martin finished his three years of duty. He returned home and utilized the G.I. Bill to finish requirements for his degree in early childhood education at Albany State.

He taught school for three years in Newnan but applied and was approved for a job with the U.S. Postal Service as a letter carrier. He held that position for 12 years, and spent the last 18 years of his 30-year career as the superintendent of window services. He was the first African-American supervisor at the Albany post office.

"I really planned on going back into teaching when the pay caught up (to his postal service salary), but it never did," Martin said.

At 83, the retired Martin has been a deacon at Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church, which was founded by his grandfather in 1920, for 55 years. He has taught the church's senior ladies Sunday school class for 30 of those years and conducts weekly Bible study classes.

He and his wife, Delois, have a son, Matthew, and he has sons -- Stuart and Edgar Jr. -- from a previous marriage. The Martins have three grandchildren.

"I was drafted into service, and until I hit Washington, I was subject to segregation even while serving my country," Martin said. "But I was not bitter then, and I have not taken time to bask in bitterness since.

"We were fighting the Germans -- who had attempted to annihilate the Jewish race -- and the Japs -- who had wreaked havoc in our country when they bombed Pearl Harbor. I wanted to be a part of fighting against a real enemy that I resented."