As the last living Tuskegee Airman in Minnesota, he was among the first black fighter pilots in World War II. Their valor led to the integration of the U.S. military.
He had flown 68 missions in two years, safely escorting U.S. bombers to targets. He was shot down once himself.
But on Christmas 68 years ago, Joseph Gomer was very ready to head home from World War II. He showed up early to board the ship that would carry hundreds of servicemen out of Italy, far from the relentless missions of the elite black Tuskegee Airmen.
He beat the crush of others eager to get home and got on the ship. But a white U.S. captain took one look at Gomer’s toast-colored skin and ordered him to the back of the line.
Hours later, he would be the last man on. The Jim Crow segregation that black servicemen hoped would be vanquished by their service had met Gomer at the dock going home.
“We were fighting two battles. I flew for my parents, for my race, for our battle for first class citizenship. We were fighting for the 14 million black Americans back home,” Gomer would later tell Minnesota Public Radio. “But we are all Americans. That is why we chose to fight.”
The Iowa native moved to Duluth, living there for the next 50 years, silent about his service. The country took little note of the Tuskegee Airmen.
“I was in my 30s before I knew anything about the Tuskegee Airmen, and that my father was one of them,” said daughter Phyllis Gomer Douglass. Her father “traversed his path in life practicing tolerance, integrity, respect and compassion for others.”
She finally heard his story in the 1990s, when historians and newspapers began calling. In 1996, the 359th Bombardment Group he had escorted gave him a standing ovation. In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal.
Last year, a bronze statue honoring Gomer, then 92, was placed at the Duluth Airport, proclaiming him “One of America’s Heroes.”
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