Duluth vets seek to honor state's only living Tuskegee Airman

Joe Gomer
World War II veteran Joe Gomer, 91, is the only living Tuskegee Airman in Minnesota. The celebrated group of African-American fighter pilots helped pave the way for integration of the U.S. military.
MPR Photo/Dan Kraker

When Joe Gomer and other members of his World War II flying unit prepared to take to the skies, the orders from their commander were always the same: protect the bombers, don't break off trying to kill enemy fighters.

"He said, 'If you go out and shoot down one fighter, that's one airplane, one man. If they get you and get a bomber, it's one plane and 10 men.' " Gomer recalled. "So we flew close cover. And the bomber crews really liked us, because they knew we wouldn't take off and leave them."

Gomer was a member of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, the nation's first black fighter pilots. Flying P-51 Mustangs, they shot down 112 enemy aircraft over the course of the war and had one of the best records of protecting bombers.

The only living Tuskegee Airman in Minnesota, Gomer, 91, will be a guest of honor Friday evening at the first Duluth showing of "Red Tails," the new George Lucas film about the pilots. Their military successes helped end segregation in the U.S. military.

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Duluth veterans advocates are raising money for a monument to honor Gomer, who served nearly two years in World War II. He flew 68 combat sorties protecting bombers from enemy fighters. Of the four pilots he shared a tent with in Italy, he was the only survivor.

On Christmas Day, 1945, when he left for Naples and a ship home, he was ecstatic. But he said that quickly changed when he took his place with other — white — officers at the front of the boarding line.

"There was a short, fat red-necked captain, on this box, and when I stepped up, he just looked at me and ordered me to the end of the line," Gomer recalled. "I just wanted to come home, so I picked up my duffel bag, and bell pack, and trudged to the end of the line. I was the last person to board the ship."

Sketch for bronze statue
Durbin Keeney, Chair of the Northland Veterans Service Committee, holds a drawing of Tuskegee Airman and longtime Duluth resident Joe Gomer. Keeney is trying to raise $42,000 for a bronze statue of Gomer to be based on the drawing that would be placed in the Duluth airport's new terminal opening this November.
MPR Photo/Dan Kraker

Looking back, Gomer describes it as one of the low points of his military career.

"Let's put it this way, if I had felt toward the Germans like I felt toward my fellow American, the war would have been a lot shorter," he said. "I had never had the real killer instinct that fighter pilots are supposed to have, until that moment."

Despite pervasive racial discrimination, the Tuskegee Airmen played an important role in winning the war. Until 1941, only white men were allowed to earn their wings in the military. That year Congress authorized the Tuskegee Airmen over the staunch objection of the War Department. Many generals didn't believe black pilots would have the smarts or courage for battle.

Attitudes began to change in 1944, when the Tuskegee pilots began flying the missions they'd become famous for.

Durbin Keeney, chair of the Northland Veterans Service Committee, said American bombers were repeatedly shot down during the war's early years. Then, the Tuskegee pilots began escorting the huge planes with their 10 man crews, protecting them from German fighters.

"These guys were phenomenal," Keeney said "They just took the Germans out. It was the first time they came back with all their aircraft. No one died. It was amazing."

Gomer believes that helped spur President Truman to end segregation in the military in 1948.

"Well, we did a good job, because we were successful," he said. "Of course, that helped integration."

City's only memorial
A small granite plaque on the side of a veterans housing facility in West Duluth is the only monument to Joe Gomer in the city. Veterans' advocates are raising money to place a life-size statue of Gomer in the Duluth airport terminal.
MPR Photo/Dan Kraker

But change was gradual. Gomer said he still experienced discrimination. When he was transferred to Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois, where there were no other black officers, white airmen refused to salute him.

"Combat veteran, that didn't mean anything," he said.

Recognition for Gomer has been a long time coming. In 2007, six decades after their service, the Tuskegee Airmen were collectively awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

In Duluth, where Gomer moved nearly 50 years ago, there's only a small plaque honoring him at a veterans building.

Joe Gomer in 1942
Joe Gomer reported to Tuskegee, Alabama for aviation cadet training in 1942. In nearly two years of service during World War II Gomer flew 68 combat missions over Europe. Now 91, Gomer is the only Tuskegee Airman living in Minnesota. He estimates there are only about 40 still alive.
Photo courtesy of Phyllis Gomer-Douglass

Keeney says that needs to change, while Joe Gomer is still alive.

"Why wait for somebody to not have the satisfaction of knowing that they were respected by their community?" Keeney asked. "I want Joe to know it, I want his wife to know it, and to be there to touch it and see it. That's what's important."

Keeney and others are trying to raise $42,000 to place a bronze statue of Gomer in the Duluth airport's new terminal. The goal is to have the statue completed by his 92nd birthday, on June 20.