Celebrating his 100th trip around the sun this weekend, the secret to Elmo Lincoln Martin’s longevity may be his optimistic attitude. That, and his sense of humor.
The World War II veteran and Bowling Green native was drafted into the Army in his early 20s and remembers the day he queued up for a doctor’s inspection along with all the other recruits.
“When he got through with me, he yelled up and down the lines and to all the rest of the doctors, ‘You want to see a perfect specimen?’ ” said Martin, who later earned the rank of sergeant. “Being perfect is all right. Being a specimen, I wasn’t sure.”
In an interview ahead of a planned birthday celebration Saturday, Martin recalled his experience in the decisive Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive campaign on the western front during WWII.
Born in Bowling Green on Oct. 10, 1920, Martin grew up on his mother’s farm in Butler County and lived through the heights of the Great Depression. He takes his quirky name – Elmo Lincoln – from the actor best known for his silent film role as the first Tarzan, Martin said.
Before joining the Army in November 1942, he was an orderly and later staff sergeant in the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps, and before that, Martin was “in the moonshine business,” he said.
Martin married his wife, Ruth Louise Benson, on Dec. 22, 1943, and together they raised four children – Sharon, Linda, James and Richard – before Ruth passed away in 2006. Martin’s worked for most of his years, not retiring from a career in sales until after his 88th birthday. At 98 years old, he returned to his roots in Kentucky.
“I’ve lived a charmed life, I think,” Martin said, adding he feels “grateful” to be celebrating his 100th birthday.
Still, Martin’s had his share of close calls, especially during his days on WWII battlefields.
“Anybody who tells you they’re not scared is lying to you. In the beginning, I wasn’t scared, but later on, when a lot of my friends were killed, you’re frightened. Courage is something that you have to call on sometimes,” Martin said of that time in his life. “Some people fail, but you still have the courage to do it.”
One close call came while Martin’s division, the 99th infantry, was staying near a railway station along the western front. Martin remembers making a cozy makeshift bed for himself beside a window, leaving and then returning, only to find “a shell had blown my little bed to pieces.”
“Good thing I wasn’t sleeping there!” Martin joked. Then his tone turned serious: “God was looking after me.”
There were other near-misses. One morning, when the Germans attacked, Martin and his band returned fire while taking cover behind a low log pile.
“We were pouring the bullets into them up there, and they turned the machine gun on that log pile trying to get rid of us,” Martin recalled.
He remembers a young man next to him who happened to be carrying a spoon with him from his mess gear.
“The belly of the spoon was sticking up and a bullet hit that belly of that spoon and he thought he’d been killed,” Martin said, recalling the smell of singed wool coming from the young man, who was otherwise unharmed.
Along with the near misses, there was loss, too.
“I was talking to a friend of mine from Louisville, and this machine gun was giving so much trouble to us. He said to me ‘I’m going to go over there and try to eliminate those guys,’” Martin recalled. “I think I was the last guy that he talked to … He was killed.”
Asked what he attributes his longevity and independence to, Martin said: “The secret to that is don’t give up, keep doing something. Don’t get cantankerous because you’re old, or mad because you’re not going to live too long. I don’t even think about that. It doesn’t worry me a bit,” he said, adding he’s been blessed with “the greatest family anybody’s ever had.”
In the end, a habit of practicing gratitude could be Martin’s secret.
Martin said he likes to live by the following words: “As long as we have memories, yesterday remains. As long as we have hope, tomorrow waits. As long as we have love, today is beautiful. As long as we have God, anything is possible.”