Saturday, September 7, 2019

A Tribute to Major Joseph P. Gomer and the Tuskegee Airmen

Duluth airport lobby. Major Joseph P. Gomer,
Tuskegee Airman 
This past week I finally watched The Tuskegee Airmen, the true account of a group of African American pilots who overcame racist opposition in every way to become one of the most successful fighter squads of World War II. It's another important film that uplifts you for the heroism recounted, and depresses you for the various ways racist attitudes continued to be an impediment to making our country what it ought to be.

The trigger for watching this film is a statue in the lobby of our Duluth International Airport. I don't know how many dozens of times I walked past this statue of airmen Joseph P. Gomer before actually reading the story etched on the base.

How this came about was that in 2014 I interviewed sculptor Timothy Cleary who teaches here in the Twin Ports at the University of Wisconsin--Superior. He was in the process of creating a sculpture to honor another pilot, Cdr. David Wheat, who had been shot down over North Viet Nam and taken captive, a man who spent seven years in the infamous Hanoi Hilton.

When the David Wheat sculpture was installed, I became curious how a sculpture of this Tuskegee Airmen came to be here. As it turns out, Major Joseph Gomer was born in Iowa Falls, Iowa and eventually lived in Duluth, where he passed in 2013.

According to an October 2013 Bob Berg story at,
After the war, Joe stayed in the Air Force, in aircraft maintenance and missile work, becoming a nuclear weapons technician. He retired as a major in 1964, then worked for the U.S. Forest Service in Minnesota, retiring in 1985.

At Duluth International Airport is a life-size bronze statue of Joe Gomer as a young pilot in his flight suit. The pedestal contains a quote from Joe: “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.”

The film does an excellent job of displaying the various ploys racist whites attempted in order to thwart these pilots' desire to serve their country. Upon their arrival at the training base in Tuskegee a white officer whose job is to train them gives them a written test because he doesn't believe they could have scored the high scores purportedly reported. He, and many others did not believe blacks were smart enough to fly airplanes.

In my own life I have heard a variation of this idiotic assertion a few times by people who did not believe blacks were smart enough to be an NFL quarterback. I would like to have these people debate Thurgood Marshall, Tony Dungee or Thomas Sowell on that point. We'd quickly see who had the low I.Q.

Another way in which the airmen's efforts to serve took place in Washington. "Sure, they can learn how to fly, but our white bombers need white escorts." The Tuskegee Airmen did get deployed, but they were left in North Africa and not slated to help protest the bombers.

Once that barrier was overcome the Tuskegee Airmen proved to be so successful that there was not a single bomber shot down in Italy while under their protection.

When the final assault on Berlin was being orchestrated, the Tuskegee "Red Tails" (they painted their planes' tails red so they could clearly identify comrades) the top command did not want to deploy them, again for race reasons. What happened, however, was that the bomber pilots requested the Red Tails because with the white fighters protecting them they lost about a third of their teams. When the Red Tails were their guardians NOT ONE was shot down by enemy fighter.

Here are a couple comments from reviewers at

reviewer 1
This is a movie that should be viewed by all Americans interested in seeing a slice of Americana which has for so long been ignored. Most will identify with the raw emotion evoked by the plight of these brave and talented men. Black Americans will be moved to tears as we are reminded of what those trailblazers overcame so that future Black soldiers, airmen and every day citizens could take their rightful place in American society, proud of their past and heritage. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the Tuskegee Airmen. This movie makes it clear why.

from another review
I've met a couple of the original Tuskeegee pilots, and I've heard their stories. The discrimination and bigotry shown in the film was NOTHING compared to the realities that they faced day after day. Even after the war, as decorated fighter pilots, the bigotry they faced on their return to the US was unbelievable.

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The film is in our local library, but if it is not in yours you can probably find it on Netflix.
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Retired United States Air Force Major Joseph Philip Gomer served as a fighter pilot with World War II's famed Tuskegee Airmen. Gomer was born on June 20, 1920 in Iowa Falls, Iowa. From the time he was a small boy, he dreamed of flying airplanes.

Gomer received his wings in May of 1943. He was assigned as a Second Lieutenant to the segregated 332 Fighter Group and sent to Ramitrella, Italy, to join the 301st Fighter Squadron.

The 332 Fighter Group served as escorts for the 15th Air Force, running bombing missions in Germany. Engaging German fighters and attacking enemy positions, they fulfilled their mission to perfection-never losing a bomber to the enemy. The white bomber pilots called their guardians the "Red Tailed Angels" after the distinctive markings on their planes. Many of these white bomber pilots did not know that their guardians were black.

In Italy, the Red Tails flew over 1,500 sorties, downing 111 enemy aircraft and sinking one German destroyer as 66 black pilots were killed in action. Joseph Gomer shared a tent with three other airmen, but within eight months all of them were killed, leaving him the sole survivor. He crash-landed a P-39, lost his canopy, and was bullet ridden in a P-47, but fought with skill and valor in over 68 sorties with the enemy. Fighting racism as well as the Germans, Gomer remained with the Air Force 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.

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Another Sad Anecdote
This was also shared on
One old fighter pilot told me of how he had just come ashore from the troopship in full uniform, and was almost immediately arrested by the military police in New York City on a charge of impersonating an officer and wearing unauthorized decorations; the MP just KNEW that there was no such thing as a Black fighter pilot. 

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Films like this are important. They bring to light the myriad ways racism has divided us from our brothers and sisters and thwarted African American advances. It's a story that reveals things that should not be left concealed.

Related Links
The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment
Green Book

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