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Sun, 06.20.1920

Joseph Gomer, Tuskegee Airman born

Joseph Gomer

*Joseph Gomer was born on this date in 1920. He was a Black businessman and former WW II Tuskegee Airman fighter pilot.

Born in Iowa Falls, Iowa, from the time he was a little boy, he was fascinated with model airplanes. Little did he know he would get his pilot's license before his driver's. Growing up in one of two African American families within a population of 5,000, the community readily accepted and embraced his family. His father, Philip Joseph Gomer, owned a janitorial business that serviced local businesses, and he worked for his father from the age of 12 while attending school. His aunt was the first wife of W.E.B. Du Bois.

The only Black in his class, he graduated from Iowa Falls High School with honors in 1938. His father died the year he graduated from high school. With help from local businesses and friends of the family, he enrolled in the pre-engineering program at Ellsworth Community College (ECC) and graduated from ECC in 1940. That same year, the Civil Aeronautics Authority contacted ECC regarding offering flight training. He returned to ECC to take the courses to prepare pilots for military service. They became known as the Ellsworth Airforce, training with their flight instructor in a pasture outside Iowa Falls.

In 1942, at 22, he enlisted in the Army. Later that year, his application to Aviation Cadet Training was approved. The War Department sent him to Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, where Gomer underwent pre-flight, basic, and advanced training. His first combat aircraft training was on the P-40 Warhawk.  Before the Tuskegee Airmen, only white Americans flew these aircraft. A series of legislative moves on the part of congress made possible the activation of the all-black 99th Fighter Squadron on March 22, 1941, despite opposition on the part of the Army Air Corps and the War Department.

Tuskegee Army Air Field, located a few miles from Tuskegee, Alabama, became the training center not only for the 99th but also for all Black fighter pilots during World War II. Flying out of Salerno, on the west coast of Italy, Gomer's unit provided convoy escort for the thousands of allied ships pouring supplies and troops into the campaign against the Germans in Italy. Later, his mission was changed from convoy escort to bomber escort.

Their record was perfect, having never lost a bomber to enemy fighters. His unit flew 1,500 sorties and downed 111 enemy aircraft, including the sinking of one German navy destroyer, while losing 78 pilots of their own through accidents, training, and combat. Four of the casualties were his tent mates, so a ground officer was put in his tent to keep him company. He had a few close calls. He crash-landed a P-39, lost his P-51 canopy, and was hit in a P-47 by a Me-109 German Fighter.

During WWII, the Tuskegee Airmen were credited with destroying 261 enemy planes, damaging 148 other opposing aircraft, flying 15,553 combat sorties, and 1,578 missions in North Africa and Italy theatres. Sixty-six of the airmen were killed in combat, and another 32 were shot down and became prisoners of war. In escorting over 200 bombing missions, the Airmen never lost an American bomber to an enemy fighter. So feared by the German pilots, the Airmen that they were referred to as the “Schwartze Vogelmenshen” (Black Birdmen). After 68 missions (for white pilots, the maximum was 50), he asked to be rotated out.  On Christmas Day, he skipped Christmas dinner to ensure he would get to the troop transport ship in time to board Naples, headed for America. When it came time to board, he was not allowed to board until all the white passengers went before him.  It was dark before he got on board, but he was just happy to be on his way home.

Racism did not deter Gomer from doing his duty as a pilot and an African American. The following statement summarizes his observation of the American military during his tour. "We shared the sky with white pilots, but that's all we shared. We never had contact with each other. German prisoners lived better than black servicemen, and the Germans treated us better than the Americans did. Our service to this country is something that never got into history books. It was just ignored. We were fighting two battles. I flew for my parents, for my race, for our battle for first-class citizenship, and for my country. We were fighting for the millions of black Americans back home. We were there to break down barriers, open a few doors, and do a job."

After WWII, Black aviators remained in the segregated unit, and Gomer became a flight test maintenance officer with the 332nd at Lockbourne Air Force Base in Ohio. He remained with the Army Air Forces after the war and was still in service on July 26, 1948, when President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 integrating the United States Armed Forces. In 1948 in Columbus, Ohio, Gomer met the woman to become his wife in a hospital for a fever of unknown origin.  She was a member of an organization known as the Gray Ladies, working as a volunteer in rehabilitation and teaching arts and crafts.

They married on March 12, 1949, the same year the Army Air Forces became the Air Force, and the Black units were integrated. During the Korean War, Gomer served as a Wing Technical Inspector with the 315th Air Division in Japan. After that war in 1955, he was assigned to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. Subsequent Air Force assignments trained him in air defense and nuclear weapons, the latter taking him to the French River, just north of Duluth, Minnesota, where he became a nuclear weapons technician.

After 22 years in the Air Force and choosing to settle in Duluth, he accepted a position with the United States Forestry Service as the local personnel officer. Upon retirement in 1985, the Secretary of Agriculture, in a ceremony in Washington, D.C., presented him with a Superior Services Award for his work with minorities and women. In 2004, Gomer was presented with a Doctorate of Humanities from the Board of Trustees of Ellsworth College.  In 2007, Gomer and the 332nd Fighter Group and 477th Bomber Group were presented with the highest award by the House of Congress, The Congressional Gold Medal.

Joseph Gomer died of cancer in Duluth, MN, on October 11, 2013.

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