In Memory of Joseph “Joe” Gomer, Minnesota’s Last Tuskegee Airman (1920-2013)

Joe Gomer, Minnesota's Last Surviving Tuskegee Airman
(Upper left) Joseph “Joe” Gomer in his later years; (Lower left) Joe Gomer as a young US Army officer; (Right) Joe Gomer with his life-size monument in Duluth Airport terminal

Duluth, Minnesota – Joseph Philip Gomer, Minnesota’s last surviving Tuskegee Airman already passed away at the ripe age of 93. He died last October 10 from cancer.

“RIP Joseph Phillip Gomer. Father and one of the last remaining Tuskegee Airmen. I love you!” the Facebook post his daughter shared in the social networking site Friday.

She further noted that her father had stayed in the nursing home at Ecumen Lakeshore in Duluth in his later years.

Becoming a Black Pilot in a White World

Joseph Gomer was fascinated by model planes even at a very young age. So right after high school graduation, he decided to follow his life-long passion and completed the pre-engineering program at Ellsworth Community College before he underwent the training needed to prepare pilots for the army. Afterwards, in July 1942, at 22, he was sent to be part of the experimental all black-suit in Tuskegee, Alabama for flight training. The said band would later become the celebrated Tuskegee Airmen – their success helped in the speedy integration of US Armed Forces in 1948.

At that time, however, US military was in strict segregation policy that hindered blacks from becoming army pilots before WWII.

But the Tuskegee Airmen proved that color is an important key in being patriots and that blacks, as much as white, can serve and defend the freedom of the country they’re living in.

During the height of the Second World War, Gomer and the band of Tuskegee Airmen, about 450 of them, went on to fly over 15,000 sorties above North Africa and Europe, destroyed 112 enemy war crafts and shot down another 150 on the ground, maimed over 900 railroad cars, locomotives and trucks among other motor machines, rammed 40 boats and barges and even put a destroyer to rest. They also just lost 25 bombers to enemy fighters in the 179 escort missions they undertook.

Gomer, who bore the rank second lieutenant during WWII, flew 68 combat missions using P-47 and P-51 fighters. he survived a crash landing and a shot-down encounter with a German fighter.

After World War II, Gomer remained in the Army Air Forces, which in 1947 was renamed the US Air Force, got married to Elizabeth in 1949, moved to Duluth in 1963 and raised their two daughters there.

After His Tuskegee Days

Gomer, whose last rank was a major, retired from the Air Force in 1964. He proceeded to work for the US Forest Service as a personnel officer and stayed on job for 21 years. He retired in 1985 with the Secretary of Agriculture presenting him with a Superior Services Award in consideration for his works involving minorities and women.

But even in his retirement, Gomer remained active until his old age and went from school group to another talking about the Tuskegee Airmen and the relevance of education.

“People can be anything they want to be now. There is no glass ceiling. Education is the key,” he stated in an interview in 2007.

In that same year, he recalled that while he was relating his Tuskegee Airman days to a group of kids, a fourth-grader came to him and asked why he defended a country that treated him poorly as a colored individual so hard willing to give up his life for it.

“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 mused.

Numerous Awards

It was just over the past twenty years that Gomer and the other pilots who were involved in the Tuskegee project saw a new wave of appreciation over their WWII brave deeds.

Gomer became the recipient of countless awards in his later years. He was one of black individuals given honor by HistoryMakers, a Chicago-based non-profit organization put together to preserve, record and share the lives of African-Americans, especially those who have made a difference.

in 2004, Gomer, being the first black Iowan to become a US Air Force officer, was initiated into the Iowa Aviation hall of Fame as well as became the recipient of a Doctorate of Humanities from the Ellsworth College Board of Trustees.

In 2007, he along with the other Tuskegee Airmen received the Congressional Gold Medal – the highest honor given by the US Congress. This said award was handed to them in a ceremony that happened in the US Capitol building’s rotunda which took place in March 29. Then US president George W. Bush saluted the Tuskegee crew members as an expression, he stated, “to help atone for all the un-returned salutes and unforgivable indignities” of the past.”

Two weeks after the event, he was honored in a ceremony done in Duluth’s City Hall by the city government, the Veterans Memorial Hall, and the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans-Duluth.

The Tuskegee Airmen, including him, were later invited to attend the inauguration of President Obama in 2009.

“I fought World War II segregated, I trained segregated, I flew segregated and I returned segregated,” Gomer stated in a 2011 interview. “But today we have President Obama, and never in my life did I dream that I would someday have a black commander in chief.”

Aside from the many decorations he and his unit received, two statues bearing his semblance and name were also unveiled.

A bronze statue of the Tuskegee pilot in his younger years stands proudly at the terminal of the Duluth airport. The other one was unveiled earlier this year and stands in his hometown, Iowa Falls in Iowa.

“It is amazing to have two statues,” Gomer had said after the unveiling April 24.

In his life size statue in Duluth’s airport, the front features a quote from the war veteran that says:

“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.”

Friends through the Years

85-year-old Matt Carter met Gomer in 1985 and the two became great friends through the years. In fact, Carter had been with him in his last days, visiting him twice a day for the past three months and had spent 11 hours that fateful Thursday when he passed away. he had fond recollections of his friend and even said the war veteran taught him a valuable lesson, something that was also passed to Gomer by his mother.

“Always have something good to say about someone,” Carter said this was the lesson lived by Gomer, then added, “He was a common man. Quiet. He was a man who deserved everything the community could honor him with.”

Durbin Keeney of the Northland Veterans Services Committee was another friend of Gomer’s and was monumental in having his Duluth airport statue come to fruition.

Durbin said Gomer has left a mark in him and the lives of the people he touched not just with the heroics he did in war but also for the admirable life he lived in Duluth. He further added that he will always remember Gomer through his “laughter, his smile, the sparkling eyes and his firm handshake.”

Remembering Joseph Gomer

Mayor Don Ness of Duluth had proclaimed a “Joe Gomer Day” on the veteran’s 90th birthday. Last October 11 in Gomer’s wake, he said these words:

“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.”

On the other hand, Durbin said there is just one thing he wish others should know about the legacy the Tuskegee Airman left.

“I just hope people in their lifetimes get to know someone like Joe Gomer,” he said. “He’s a real hero. He’s our Joe.”

– The MPR News and report







Heziel Pitogo

Heziel Pitogo is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE