Major, U.S. Air Force (Retired)
Member of Tuskegee Airmen
Ellsworth Community College, IA
By Evelyn L. Kent
Joseph Gomer was a Tuskegee airman. He hopes that statement can one day stand alone, needless of further explanation.
"A lot of people have never heard of Tuskegee airmen even today," he said.
The Tuskegee airmen were the first black Americans trained as pilots as part of a plan initiated by Franklin Roosevelt during World War II. The all-black unit trained at and took its name from the airfield named after the nearby, famous Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
Gomer graduated from Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls, Iowa in 1940. During his two years there, he took a class in flight instruction and learned how to fly before he knew how to drive. That training class laid the groundwork for his training in Tuskegee.
He entered the war as a second lieutenant in the segregated 332nd Fighter Group, which served as escorts to white bomber pilots. The group, called the Red Tails for the distinctive markings on their planes, never lost a bomber to the enemy. Even that impressive record did not earn him equal status in the military.
"We fought two battles. We were fighting for first class citizenship at home, and we were fighting the Axis powers."
Gomer flew 68 missions – far more than he needed to go home and on Christmas Day 1944, he did just that. The trip proved to remind him of what he faced in America.
As an officer, First Lt. Gomer was allowed to board the transport ship ahead of the enlisted men, but a "red neck" captain stopped him from boarding and sent him to the back of the line, behind the white soldiers. He was the last to board the ship that day. The memory lingers still.
"If I'd felt toward the Germans the way I felt toward that captain, I'd have been an ace many times over. It was the first time I ever felt the urge to kill," he said.
Gomer reached the rank of major before retiring from the Air Force in 1964 after 22 years. He became an employment officer for the U.S. Forest Service later that year. In his 21 years there he "put every qualified minority candidate in a position either there or in another office."
Twice retired, Gomer says he is busier now than when he worked. He bowls and exercises regularly with his wife of 57 years, Elizabeth. He is a lay leader at his church, attends Kiwanis meetings, is a member of the Military Officers Association and sleeps in only on Saturdays.
He gives speeches about his war time experiences to help honor black Americans who served in the segregated military and to help inspire the youth of today with the knowledge that any thing is within reach – especially with education.
He should know. "I've lived assimilated, segregate and integrated." It was almost a hobby after the ex order was signed and we became integrated. It was almost a hobby integrating every where we went."