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Steve Kuchera and Mike Creger, Forum News Service, Published October 11 2013

Minnesota’s last member of Tuskegee Airmen dies at 93

DULUTH, Minn. - Joseph Philip Gomer, Minnesota’s last surviving member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, died late Thursday night. He was 93.

“RIP Joseph Phillip Gomer. Father and one of the last remaining Tuskegee Airmen. I love you!” his daughter, Phyllis Douglass, posted on her Facebook page Friday. She said her father was suffering from cancer and was in hospice at Ecumen Lakeshore in Duluth.

The success of the Tuskegee Airmen is credited with helping prompt the integration of U.S. armed forces in 1948.

The outfit lost 66 pilots killed in action; 32 pilots were captured. Second Lt. Gomer flew 68 combat missions in P-47 and P-51 fighters, surviving a crash landing and having his plane shot up by a German fighter.

In 2007, Gomer related how a fourth-grader once asked him why he fought so hard for a country that treated him, a black man, so poorly.

“I had to explain to him that this is my country; it’s the only country I knew, and I was ready to sacrifice for it,” Gomer said.

Over the past two decades, Tuskegee veterans saw a new appreciation for their efforts. In Duluth, Gomer was treated as the hero he was.

In 2012, a life-sized bronze statue of a young Gomer in his flight suit was created for the Duluth International Airport’s new terminal. The four sides of its base display names of sponsors, a biography of Gomer, a synopsis of the Tuskegee Airmen, and, in front, this quote from Gomer:

“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.”

‘Common man’

Matt Carter, 87, met Gomer in 1985 and they became fast friends who shared similar experiences as people of color in the predominately white Northland.

Carter spent time with Gomer twice a day for the past three months. He was with him for 11 hours Thursday and had an inkling that “his time was coming.”

He was told Gomer had died as he prepared to visit him again Friday morning.

“We had some wonderful times,” Carter said.

Gomer loved to fish and spent much of his summers in Ely.

Carter said Gomer taught him a valuable lesson once, one he recalled his mother telling him as a child.

“Always have something good to say about someone,” Carter said. It’s how Gomer led his life, he said.

“He was a common man. Quiet. He was a man who deserved everything the community could honor him with.”

A good friend

Durbin Keeney of the Northland Veterans Services Committee was instrumental in getting the monument built at the airport. He and Gomer become good friends, with Durbin visiting the pilot several times a week up until his death.

He said Gomer was prepared for death, and that eases his sadness.

“You know it’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s always hard when it does.”

As Durbin became friends with Gomer about 20 years ago, he noticed that while there were plenty of monuments or public places named after other area war veterans, there was nothing for Gomer.

Durbin said he prefers monuments to memorials, allowing the person who is honored to enjoy it.

“Let’s do this for Joe,” Durbin recalled telling others as the effort to erect the statue at the airport began.

Durbin, accustomed to raising money for causes over the years, said “this was the easiest sell I ever had.”

Gomer’s story sold itself and people were eager to honor him, he said.

Gomer and his wife, Liz, were married for 63 years and Durbin recalled a visit Joe made to her last fall just before she died. It was the most tender moment Durbin has ever seen.

“Joe just crawled into bed with her and held her,” Durbin said. “That’s love. Period.”

He said Liz was his anchor, and was always there to keep Gomer humble despite the accolades over the years.

“He knew how to take the adulation,” Durbin said.

Durbin said his friend should not only be known for his war exploits but also for the exemplary life he led in Duluth. He said he will always recall his “laughter, his smile. Those sparkling eyes. The firm handshake.”

In the air

Born in Iowa Falls, Iowa, on June 20, 1920, Gomer was fascinated by model airplanes as a child. After graduating from high school, he completed the pre-engineering program at Ellsworth Community College before undergoing training designed to prepare pilots for the military. In July 1942, at age 22, he enlisted in the Army and was sent to Tuskegee, Ala., for flight training in the experimental all-black outfit that would become known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

The U.S. military was strictly segregated at the time, and blacks were not allowed to become military pilots before World War II.

During the war, Gomer and about 450 other Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 15,000 sorties over North Africa and Europe. They shot down 112 enemy aircraft and destroyed another 150 on the ground; disabled more than 900 railroad cars, locomotives, trucks and other motor vehicles; sank 40 boats and barges, and put a destroyer out of action. On 179 escort missions, they lost only 25 bombers to enemy fighters.

After the war, Gomer remained in the Army Air Forces, which became the U.S. Air Force in 1947.

Gomer married Elizabeth Caperton on March 12, 1949. The couple raised two daughters, and moved to Duluth in 1963. Elizabeth Gomer was long active in the community, serving as a member of the Duluth Charter Commission and as president of the League of Women Voters.

Elizabeth Gomer died of cancer on Nov. 4, 2012. She was 87.

Into the forest

In 1964, Gomer retired from the Air Force with a rank of major. He then worked 21 years for the U.S. Forest Service as a personnel officer. When he retired in 1985, the Secretary of Agriculture presented him with a Superior Services Award for his work with minorities and women.

Gomer remained active into his 80s and 90s, talking to school groups about the Tuskegee Airmen and the importance of education.

“People can be anything they want to be now,” he said in a 2007 interview. “There is no glass ceiling. Education is the key.”

Gomer received numerous honors in his later years. In 2002, he was among more than 100 black pioneers honored by the Chicago-based nonprofit HistoryMakers, which records, preserves and shares the life stories of African-Americans.

In 2004, Gomer — the first black Iowan to become an officer in the U.S. Air Force — was inducted into the Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame and received a Doctorate of Humanities from the Board of Trustees of Ellsworth College.

National recognition

In 2007, Gomer, along with the rest of the Tuskegee Airmen, received a Congressional Gold Medal — the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. Congress. During a March 29, 2007, ceremony in the U.S. Capitol building’s rotunda, President George W. Bush saluted the unit members as a gesture, he said, “to help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities” of the past.

Two weeks later, the city of Duluth, the Veterans Memorial Hall, and the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans-Duluth honored Gomer at a City Hall ceremony.

In 2008, he and other Tuskegee Airmen were invited to attend the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama.

“I fought World War II segregated, I trained segregated, I flew segregated and I returned segregated,” Gomer said in 2011. “But today we have President Obama, and never in my life did I dream that I would someday have a black commander in chief.”

Another statue

Earlier this year, a second statue of Gomer was unveiled in Iowa Falls.

“It is amazing to have two statues,” Gomer said after the unveiling April 24.

Duluth Mayor Don Ness, on Gomer’s 90th birthday, proclaimed “Joe Gomer Day.” He said Friday that “while we mourn, we can also take comfort in knowing that he received the recognition he rightly deserved. Joe was able to witness the unveiling of a life-sized statue at the Duluth International Airport. The Joe Gomer Monument will forever serve as a reminder of Joe’s vast contributions to our community and country.”

Durbin said he has just one wish when it comes to Gomer’s legacy.

“I just hope people in their lifetimes get to know someone like Joe Gomer,” he said. “He’s a real hero. He’s our Joe.”

Comrades across the country

Carter said he received a call from Gomer’s fellow Tuskegee veteran, Charles McGee, from Maryland on Friday.

He said he was glad Gomer “had a friend like you” in his final hours, Carter said.

Carter was familiar with McGee because Gomer kept a book on the airmen at his bedside. Carter would read from it during his visits.

Gomer talked about his old comrades in his own quiet way, Carter said.

“We would just sit and talk,” he said of the final days.

“I’m proud to know Joe,” he said. “People should remember Joe and how the community responded to him. He was a wonderful person.”