From World War II battlefield to NASA: The story of one Alabama man’s involvement in two of the 20th century’s most defining moments

After fighting in World War II, Bill Martin returned to Alabama to work as a mechanic. Through hardwork dedication, he eventually inspected Apollo Launch Vehicle systems while working for General Electric in Huntsville.

Gabe Rhoden Volunteer Writer [email protected]

ACT I: The Boy Soldier

A handsome, young-man from Greensboro, Ala. stepped down from an army truck on to the thick snow-layered Belgium soil. He was far away from his home and his future had just become uncertain. Fresh from the sixteen-weeks of training he received in Fort Blanding, he immediately wished for the heat of that Florida sun he once cursed. Opening his mouth, Pvt. William “Bill” E. Martin’s breath immediately froze. It was the coldest he’d ever been. Tasked under Gen. George Patton, Martin was one of the millions alike facing humanity’s greatest conflict first hand. He was 19 years old. 

Just five years before, Martin was a boy living in Birmingham, Ala. He had dropped out of school and was now working part-time at a local ford dealership. He worked hard and saved his money well. Wanting a car of his own, his eyes were caught by a 1936 Chevrolet that a man was selling in his front yard. The car was in fine shape, although it needed some new paint and had a few engine problems, it was still a fine car. So, at 15 years old, young Martin bought the car from the man for $300 of his own hard-earned cash. It was a proud moment. 

Over the next year, the 1936 Chevy was hard worked by Martin. He had it repainted a sharp, cherry-red and had white-wall tires installed. He fixed the engine problems and the occasional oil leak; it ran like new. It was like every middle-aged man’s dream being performed and lived out by a teenager. It was a sharp car for a 16-year-old. Hell, it was a sharp car for anyone. When gas was rationed across the United States in 1942, it quickly became a bad time to own the gas guzzling 1936 Chevy. He was forced to put his prized car up for sale and resort to buying a smaller, less sharp, green sedan. He sold the Chevrolet for $800, $500 more than what he bought it for originally just two years earlier. 

Now, far away from the crank shafts of Chevrolets and Fords, the distant sounds of German mortar fire began to ring through the air. Martin and his fellow division made their way toward the town of Batstone on the Belgium border. They were tasked with providing support to the encircled allied troops who were trapped in the small town. This would be Martin’s first battle and he was uncertain if it was to be his last. The artillery fire that once was distant was now closer. In the blink of an eye, the shell that exploded from the barrel of the German 88 artillery gun whistled through the air and landed some yards from their position. In the scramble, Martin was wounded by the shell that exploded and hit him and his sergeant. After the ringing of his ears stopped and the clarity of his vision came back, Martin felt a sharp pain in his leg. His sergeant, who wasn’t so lucky, was killed by the same explosion. 

In that moment alone, Martin was no longer a boy. Despite the wound, Martin continued to fight for the following weeks. Spearheading the front from north to south, he fought valiantly, pushing back every German advancement. After the fiercest American battle of the war, Germany finally surrendered. 

ACT II: The Rocket Man

Coming home to Birmingham, Ala. of all places after a war on the world’s stage will humble a man. He had received many awards and tokens featuring an array of all metal types: bronze, silver and gold. Yet, the 20-year-old was humbled. Humbled by the value he now set on his life and the life of his newly wed wife. She was his prize. 

Starting a new family, Martin got straight back into the work force. He picked up the thing he knew best; mechanics. He went back to work at the same ford dealership he had work for before the draft. To his surprise, it still was there. It was found the same as he had left it, almost as if he hadn’t been gone for that long. Birmingham was booming of course, and the job market for a mechanic was wide. Over the next thirteen years, Martin worked the odds and ins for many mechanic shops in the Birmingham area. Just about anything mechanical you could bring him, he could fix. He was gifted and his resume reflected that. 

Finally, he got a call that would change his life. The General Electric Company, in Huntsville, were hiring just about anyone that could change a light bulb at the time. Huntsville was in the beginning stages of its own important boom. So, in 1965, he moved his family north and got straight to work for G.E. Because of his previous experience and impressive resume, he was put into a high position for the company. Everyone who had moved to Huntsville at the time were there because of one thing: NASA. Martin was no exception. He was now the ‘Quality Control Inspector’ for all Apollo Launch Vehicle systems that were being developed there at the time.  

The same hands that once fixed the engine of an old 1936 Chevrolet were now inspecting carefully engineered circuit boards and electrical switches for man’s greatest road-trip. The thousands of small steps Martin took across the Rhineland in the name of freedom just twenty-five years before was the foundation for that long anticipated “giant leap” that was soon to come. Martin lived in the present, he rarely looked back. He couldn’t see it, but his devotion to the present-then led to his achievements in the present-now. In contrast to the German explosion that granted him his Purple Heart and took the life of his sergeant all those years ago, this new German explosion shot American men on course to the moon.

ACT III: The Patriot

Sitting in his leather lounger, Bill Martin snores. He’s taking a nap after a long morning of reading the paper and tending to his yard. He’s old now. The clock above the fireplace mantle reads, ‘2:07 p.m.’ His kids, all grown and getting old themselves, have kids of their own. Their kids have kids of their own and so on. Bill Martin has survived through it all. He’s seen the rises and falls of America, the happiness and sorrows of life, the birth of children and deaths of the same. He’s seen his own wife of more than sixty years forget his features and name. He still survives. 

On the early 2000s TV that weighs more than him, a football game plays. He doesn’t watch it. He keeps it on for the noise of it. He’s a busy man, no time to sit and watch a football game now. Under the cabinet where that prehistoric TV lays, there’s a DVD case with his favorite movie inside: “The Patriot”. He plays it occasionally when he can. Bill Martin was once a Patriot. He flew and defended that same flag that Mel Gibson’s character fights for in the movie. It’s the only that hasn’t changed in all these years. The red, white and blue that was raised above the town of Bastogne, Belgium are the same colors now hanging from the flagpole outside Martin’s garage in Huntsville, Ala. He’s not done.    

A plastic bucket in-hand, the now 84-year-old Martin begins the daily rounds of his new battlefield. There are no more German advances, no more generals and sergeants. He is alone. The sound that once was mortar fire is replaced with the striking of golf balls by the nearby players teeing off. In fact, the only shots being fired are now these. Yet still, he spearheads the front. He begins in the far and works towards the back porch, bending over and picking up every stray golf ball that’s found its place on his property. The only thing dividing his backyard from the Plantation golf course is a seven-foot-tall hedge, only a few feet deep. This alone, of course, doesn’t deter the enemy fire from entering Martin’s frontline. 

After fifteen-years of living on Plantation Drive and this daily tradition happening, Martin has managed to fill two normal sized trash-bins with one-hundred percent golf ball. Whether done out of the pure hobby of it or simply to save his lawnmower from damage; to collect that many golf balls is dedication. For his grandchildren and great-grandchildren who often visit, the two golf ball bins are top attractions at the Martin household. Even the fathers of the children don’t mind going through the collection, picking out the best balls for their next day on the green. Martin, who can be found many times sitting in his metal-framed, folding picnic chair at the edge of the garage; a man simply satisfied of his own craft, encourages the actions. 

“Did you find the right one?” he asks the kids. “Did you get all you wanted?” 

His face began to shine and that famous smile that his family knew all too well would glow. It was more than just a collection to Martin, it had to be. He is a man with so many chapters to his story, so many rewards and goals met. Yet now, in the present, Bill Martin’s determination was set on his family and their achievements. Going to Granddaddy’s and picking a few golf balls from those old garbage bins is a treat for any of the kids, but most importantly, it’s a treat for Bill Martin.