Legendary Tuskegee Airman Joe Gomer of Duluth diesUPDATE: Gomer, Minnesota’s last surviving member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, has died. He was 93.
By: Steve Kuchera, Duluth News Tribune
Joseph Philip Gomer, Minnesota’s last surviving member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, has died. He was 93.
“RIP Joseph Phillip Gomer. Father and one of the last remaining Tuskegee Airmen. I love you!” his daughter, Phyllis Douglass, posted on her Facebook page today.
Born in Iowa Falls, Iowa, on June 20, 1920, Gomer was fascinated by model airplanes as a child. After graduating from high school, he completed the pre-engineering program at Ellsworth Community College before undergoing training designed to prepare pilots for the military. In July 1942, at the age of 22, he enlisted in the Army and was sent to Tuskegee, Ala., for flight training in the experimental all-black outfit that would become known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
The U.S. military was strictly segregated at the time, and blacks were not allowed to become military pilots before World War II.
During the war, Gomer and about 450 other Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 15,000 sorties over North Africa and Europe. They shot down 112 enemy aircraft and destroyed another 150 on the ground; disabled more than 900 railroad cars, locomotives, trucks and other motor vehicles; sank 40 boats and barges, and put a destroyer out of action. On 179 escort missions, they lost only 25 bombers to enemy fighters.
The success of the Tuskegee Airmen is credited with helping prompt the integration of U.S. armed forces in 1948.
The outfit lost 66 pilots killed in action; 32 pilots were captured. Second Lt. Gomer flew 68 combat missions in P-47 and P-51 fighters, surviving a crash landing and having his plane shot up by a German fighter.
In 2007, Gomer related how a fourth-grader once asked him why he fought so hard for a country that treated him, a black man, so poorly.
“I had to explain to him that this is my country; it’s the only country I knew, and I was ready to sacrifice for it,” Gomer said.
After the war, Gomer remained in the Army Air Forces, which became the U.S. Air Force in 1947.
Gomer married Elizabeth Caperton on March 12, 1949. The couple raised two daughters, and moved to Duluth in 1963. Elizabeth Gomer was long active in the community, serving as a member of the Duluth Charter Commission and as president of the League of Women Voters.
Elizabeth Gomer died of cancer on Nov. 4, 2012. She was 87.
In 1964, Gomer retired from the Air Force with a rank of major. He then worked 21 years for the U.S. Forest Service as a personnel officer. When he retired in 1985, the Secretary of Agriculture presented him with a Superior Services Award for his work with minorities and women.
Audio: Joe Gomer's January 2012 interview with Minnesota Public Radio's Dan Kraker:
Gomer remained active into his 80s and 90s, talking to school groups about the Tuskegee Airmen and the importance of education.
“People can be anything they want to be now,” he said in a 2007 interview. “There is no glass ceiling. Education is the key.”
Gomer received numerous honors in his later years. In 2002, he was among more than 100 black pioneers honored by the Chicago-based nonprofit HistoryMakers, which records, preserves and shares the life stories of African-Americans.
In 2004, Gomer — the first black Iowan to become an officer in the U.S. Air Force — was inducted into the Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame and received a Doctorate of Humanities from the Board of Trustees of Ellsworth College.
In 2007, Gomer, along with the rest of the Tuskegee Airmen, received a Congressional Gold Medal — the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. Congress. During a March 29, 2007, ceremony in the U.S. Capitol building’s rotunda, President George W. Bush saluted the unit members as a gesture, he said, “to help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities” of the past.
Two weeks later, the City of Duluth, the Veterans Memorial Hall, and the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans-Duluth honored Gomer at a City Hall ceremony.
"Duluth lost a national hero with the passing of Joe Gomer, one of the few remaining Tuskegee Airmen who served in WWII," Duluth Mayor Don Ness said today in a written statement. "Joe and his family moved to Duluth in 1963 and have been an integral part of our community ever since. While we mourn, we can also take comfort in knowing that he received the recognition he rightly deserved. Joe was able to witness the unveiling of a life-sized statue at the Duluth International Airport. The Joe Gomer Monument will forever serve as a reminder of Joe’s vast contributions to our community and country."
In 2008, he and other Tuskegee Airmen were invited to watch the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama.
“I fought World War II segregated, I trained segregated, I flew segregated and I returned segregated,” Gomer said in 2011. “But today we have President Obama, and never in my life did I dream that I would someday have a black commander in chief.”
In 2012, a life-sized bronze statue of a young Gomer in his flight suit was created for the Duluth International Airport’s new terminal. The four sides of its base display names of sponsors, a biography of Gomer, a synopsis of the Tuskegee Airmen, and, in front, this quote from Gomer:
“We’re all Americans. That’s why we chose to fight. I’m as American as anybody. My black ancestors were brought over against their will to help build America. My German ancestors came over to build a new life. And my Cherokee ancestors were here to greet all the boats.”
Earlier this year, a second statue of Gomer was unveiled in Iowa Falls.
News Tribune editor Robin Washington contributed to this report.