Joseph Gomer knows how to fight battles. The 87-year-old retired Air Force major has fought the Germans, Koreans and Vietnamese. But his most profound battle was right here at home — his fight for equal rights.
“It is certainly a different world that we live in today,” says Gomer, reflecting on his life as a young pilot learning to cope in a segregated world. He is humble, well, and enjoys his home in Duluth, but it is obvious that painful memories from long ago are still vivid in his mind.
Gomer was born in Iowa Falls, Iowa, and his history all started with a passion for planes. He used to build model airplanes, but he never dreamed he’d actually fly them.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” chuckles Gomer.
During his early years at Ellsworth Community College, he signed up for a civilian pilot training course where he learned to fly before he learned to drive.
“The second time I saw a real airplane up close, I was flying it. The instructor asked if I could go move his car, and I had to tell him that I didn’t know how to drive.”
After graduating from Ellsworth with a pre-engineering degree, Gomer enlisted in the army at age 22. He was sent to the Tuskegee Army Airfield in Tuskegee, Alabama. He learned on this journey that life was very different in Alabama than it was back home.
The racial divide was clearly drawn past the Mason-Dixon Line. He was fighting a World War in Europe in a segregated army: “Two battles,” he notes, “one in the sky and one back home.”
“It all revolved around color,” Gomer recalls. “The Germans had more respect for us than our fellow Americans.”
The all-Black Tuskegee Airmen earned the Germans’ respect with their sharp skill and precision in the sky. Their objective was to stay with the B-24 American bombers, and that they did — with a flawless record. The pilots flew tight cover in their P-51 red-tailed Escort planes and were often called the “red-tail angels.”
While the Tuskegee Airmen lost 78 of their own pilots during World War II from training, combat or accidents, plus an additional 32 pilots who became prisoners of war, the Tuskegee pilots never lost a single American bomber. They destroyed more than 250 enemy aircraft on the ground and 150 in the air.
“Being a segregated group, we had a self-motivation there,” Gomer points out.
Despite their strong skill in the sky, the airmen had no control over the racial prejudice on the ground. “We did not come back as heroes,” says Gomer.
He recalls his trip home in January 1945. He was waiting in uniform to board the S.S. American. Eager to step on the ship, he was quickly directed to the end of the line because he was Black. Gomer waited until dark to board the ship that night. He was the last one on.
“That was kind of a low point. I never felt the killer instinct in me until I was ordered to the end of the line. Had I had that feeling before, the war would have been over a lot sooner.”
At the time of our interview, Gomer and his wife planned to attend Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration, thanks to an invitation from Washington sent to him and 225 other retired Tuskegee pilots. The pilots are all in their eighties and nineties today — some of them physically feeble, but all of them remarkable in their mission to break down barriers.
They never dreamed they’d see a Black American become president. “I’m surprised that it happened in my lifetime,” notes Gomer.
After his time in World War II, Gomer fought as a fighter pilot in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Retiring from the military after 22 years of service, he then was employed with the U.S. Forest Service for 21 years as a personnel officer in Duluth.
Gomer’s fight for equal rights continued there with his efforts to create a diverse working environment within the Forest Service. To no surprise, he succeeded; he was later presented a Superior Services Award by the Department of Agriculture for his work with women and minorities.
In March 2007, Joseph Gomer was honored the Congressional Gold Medal — the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. Congress — for his military service. In 2004, he earned a doctorate degree in humanities from his alma mater, Ellsworth College.
“We want to make sure that all our young people can be all they can be,” Gomer says. “We broke down a lot of doors, and we want all our young people to be able to go through those doors.
“We should look for similarities in people, not differences. Actually, we are all cousins anyhow.”
Felicia Shultz welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.