Duluth's Joe Gomer survived wars fought on two fronts: one against our country's enemies in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War and the other against prejudice, both in the military and back home.
A fighter pilot, he survived a crash landing. He also survived each time his P-47 got shot up.
"I was really a clay pigeon sometimes," he recalled. And he survived with wind-burned eyes but with his eyesight and the rest of him still intact after the canopy of his P-51 inexplicably blew off mid-flight, tearing his safety goggles from his face.
A black man, he survived, too, his trip home from war, when, despite being a first lieutenant who had completed 68 successful missions, he was ordered to the back of the line by a "short, fat, redneck captain," he said. "I was the last person to board the ship. That was my reward for surviving.
"So we've come a long ways," Gomer said after graciously granting an interview last week.
Just how far? On Wednesday, Gomer's 92nd birthday, he will be honored at a ceremony to unveil a life-sized bronze statue of him depicting his military days, a statue that will be displayed in the Duluth International Airport.
All of Duluth and the Northland are invited to attend and to pay tribute to a true American hero, Minnesota's last surviving member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen.
"This is definitely top drawer, to get a statue in your lifetime," Gomer said. "I appreciate it so much. Many people don't realize I'm just the tip of the iceberg of the black Army Air Corps. It was an exact replica of the white Army Air Corps."
Well, not exact, as anyone can attest who saw the blockbuster movie "Red Tails" or who has done any research into what long had been a neglected bit of American history.
Gomer, a native of Iowa, became a Tuskegee Airman in July 1942 after enlisting in the Army as a 22-year-old and being sent to the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. For more than three decades, only white Americans had flown combat missions.
Tuskegee was a first-of-its-kind training center for black fighter pilots. It was "an experiment," so dubbed because of the ignorant many who insisted black men lacked the intelligence to fly in war and the courage and patriotism to hold up under battle stress.
Gomer and the rest of the now-famous Tuskegee Airmen more than proved the critics wrong. Between May 1943 and June 1945, 450 Tuskegee Airmen shot down 111 enemy aircraft and destroyed 150 on the ground. They disabled more than 600 railroad cars and locomotives. They sank a German destroyer and 40 other boats and barges. In their main mission, escorting bombers, they were perfect.
The airmen never lost one, making their fighter group the only one with such a record.
"Our success paved the way for President Truman to sign the order to integrate the military and end segregation," Gomer said.
He recalled the relationship between black American fighter pilots and white American fighter pilots in World War II during a speech at Duluth's Juneteenth celebration in 2000.
"We shared the skies, but that was about all," he said. "We never had contact with each other. German prisoners lived better than black servicemen."
Gomer moved to Duluth nearly 50 years ago to work at the air base here and so his daughter could go to nursing school at the College of St. Scholastica. After 22 years in the military he enjoyed a second career with the U.S. Forest Service, retiring in 1985.
His wife Elizabeth long has been active in the community, including as a member of the Duluth Charter Commission and as president of the League of Women Voters. The Gomer family has lived in the same house in Piedmont Heights since 1964.
"In my lifetime I've seen lots of changes, including right here in Duluth," Gomer said last week. "It had to get better." And it has, in the areas of housing, education and people's attitudes about issues, including race.
"People are getting to know each other a little better. We still have a ways to go, though," he said. "I've been lots of places. Duluth is hard to beat. Duluthians don't know how fortunate they are (with) the amenities here, the schools, the opportunities and the natural beauty.
"Duluth has been good to me," he said, "and I guess we have influenced Duluth a little bit."
On Wednesday, Duluth and all the Northland can seize an opportunity to be good to Gomer, a true American hero. We can thank him for his groundbreaking, barriers-breaking service.
And we can honor him, not just for surviving, but for persevering, for teaching and for making our community a better, prouder, more patriotic and more tolerant place.
Chuck Frederick is the News Tribune's editorial page editor. This column was distributed by MCT Information Services