Stories

Honor Thy Father: A Tuskegee Airman
A Tribute to my Father, Joseph P. Gomer

by Ms. Gomer-Douglass

Joseph P. GomerRetired United States Air Force Major Joseph Philip Gomer, my father, served as a fighter pilot with World War II's famed Tuskegee Airmen. He was born on June 20, 1920 in Iowa Falls, Iowa. From the time he was a small boy, he dreamed of flying airplanes...

My father got his pilots license before his driver's license. Born in Iowa Falls, he grew up in one of two African American families within a population of 5,000. They were readily accepted and embraced by the community. He became interested in planes before the United States was involved in World War II. The only black in his class, he graduated from Iowa Falls High School with honors in 1938. He was fascinated with model airplanes and took pilot training as a student at Ellsworth College in Iowa Falls before the war. In July 1942, at the age of 22, he enlisted in the Army. Later that year his application to Aviation Cadet Training was approved. The Army, having noted his pilot training, sent him to Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama under an experimental program launched by congressional order in March 1941. My father and the other recruits traveled to Tuskegee by Pullman. When the train crossed the Mason-Dixon line, he waged his first war with segregation. Getting up to go to breakfast, he and the other Iowans were shown to seats in the back of the dining car. Then a curtain was pulled across, separating them from the other diners. "I got up and pulled it back a couple of times, then they closed it again. Finally, we got up and walked out."

My father went through pre-flight, basic and advanced training. His first combat aircraft training was on the P-40 Warhawk. He claims that his first flight in a P-40 was a monumental occasion in his life. "That long nose and big horsepower really impressed me. I made it okay." Americans had been flying combat aircraft for more than 30 years, since World War I. But before the Tuskegee Airmen, only white Americans flew these aircraft. A series of legislative moves on the part of congress made possible the activation of the all-black 99th Fighter Squadron on March 22, 1941, despite opposition on the part of the Army Air Corps and the War Department. Tuskegee Army Air Field, located at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, became the training center not only for the 99th but for all black fighter pilots during World War II. The program expanded to include the all-black 332nd Fighter Group and 447th Bombardment Group, requiring additional training facilities. There were critics of the plan to put Black Americans into the cockpits of combat aircraft during World War II, stating that Blacks would be incapable of learning to fly, or would prove inept and be a liability in battle.

The Tuskegee Airmen Proved Them Wrong

Flying out of Salerno, on the west coast of Italy, my Father's unit provided convoy escort for the thousands of allied ships that were pouring supplies and troops into the campaign to kick the Germans out of Italy. Patrolling thousands of feet above the Mediterranean, he would gaze at the line of ships that seemed to him to stretch out for miles and miles across the blue water. Another site he remembers is when Mount Vesuvius erupted in March 1944. "I remember taking off that day and swinging over the coast. I could see all that red lava just flowing down. A beautiful sight."

Later, his mission was changed from convoy escort to bomber escort. Their record was perfect. They never lost a bomber to enemy fighters. They even stuck to their bombers when black puffs of flak burst among the formations - the point at which the German fighters broke off. "Flak doesn't discriminate. Those German 88's could get you if you flew straight for 17 seconds. I remember one burst hit our squadrom commander." my father recalled. The 301st then traded in their P-39 Cobras for the P-47 Thunderbolt, a seven ton fighter that impressed them with it's sheer size. While it was a good dependable fighter, according to my Father, it didn't compare to the sleek P-51 Mustang which the unit later received. It was his dream aircraft and his favorite. His unit kept busy, and while in Italy it flew 1,500 sorties and downed 111 enemy aircraft including the sinking of one German navy destroyer while losing 66 of their own. Three of the casualties were his tent mates, so a ground officer was put in his tent to keep him company. He himself had a few close calls. He crash-landed a P-39, lost his canopy, and was bullet ridden in a P-47 by a Me-109 German Fighter. He looked out of his cockpit in time to see a line of 20mm cannon holes stitch his wing right to the fuselage. As the German aircraft flew past him, he recalls the the swastika on its tail assembly "big as day."

After 68 sorties (for white pilots the maximum was 50), he asked to be rotated out. On Christmas Day, he skipped Christmas dinner to make sure that he would get to the troop transport ship in time to board in Naples, headed for the states. When it came time to board, he reported to the officer who was checking off names on the passenger list. My father's name had a "N" behind it. The letter "N" in the segregated, race-conscious military of the times stood for "Negro". He was ordered to the end of the line by the red-necked captain, and not allowed to board until all the white passengers went before him. It was dark before he got on board, but he was on his way home. Upon his return to the United States, he helped train other Black pilots at Tuskegee.

Along with his fellow fighter pilots, he found intolerance within the ranks of the U.S. Air Force during the war. One example in particular took place during his units stay on the Italian front.

"A couple of our fighters rescued a crippled bomber and brought them back to base. The bomber's flight crew came over to look us up and when the pilot discovered there was nothing but black faces, he turned around and walked away." The pilot did not realize that the P-51 pilots flying cover for him were African American. He was heard to say under his breath, "It ain't so."

They fought racism on the ground when they were not fighting the Germans in the air.

"We shared the sky with white pilots, but that's all we shared. We never had contact with each other. German prisoners lived better than black servicemen...and the Germans treated us better than the Americans did. Our service is something that just never got into history books. It was just ignored."

Racism did not dissuade my Father from doing his duty as both a pilot and an African American. There was a contradiction between fighting for democracy overseas while facing the denial of civil rights back home.

"We were fighting two battles. I flew for my parents, for my race, for our battle for first-class citizenship and for my country. We were fighting for the 14 million black Americans back home. We were there to break down barriers, open a few doors, and do a job." But we're all Americans. That's why we chose to fight. I'm as American as anybody. My black ancestors were brought over here, perhaps 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."

During World War II, black fighter pilots fought the Germans abroad and racism in the ranks...may we never forget...and may future generations understand the way it was... "A lot of getting along with one another is simply getting to know one another as people." my father said. "Look at children. They don't learn distrust and disrespect from each other; they learn it from their parents."

After the war, black aviators remained in the segregated unit and my father was flight test maintenance officer with the 332nd at Lockbourne Air Force Base in Ohio. He remained with the Army Air Forces 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. In 1949, the Army Air Forces became the Air Force and the Black units were integrated. There, his assignment as Chief of Reconnaissance and Helicopter Aircraft Headquarter Tactical Air Command at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, qualified him to fly helicopters. During the Korean War he served with the 315th Air Division in Japan in support of the Korean War. He was the Wing Technical Inspector responsible for reviewing all technical matters which included the status of (96) C-119s and (27) C-47's.

After that war in 1955, he sought duty as a helicopter pilot but the Air Force, recognizing his experience as a maintenance officer, assigned him to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. While there he maintained the first Air Force helicopter flight established to transport President Dwight D. Eisenhower and other officials in the Washington, D.C., area. Later Air Force assignments trained him in air defense and nuclear weapons. The latter took him to the French River, just north of Duluth, Minnesota where he served as a member of the Air Defense Missile Squadron. He earned the Missile Man Insignia, and became a nuclear weapons technician.

Because career opportunities for African Americans were limited outside the military, my father stayed in the Airforce for 22 years, retiring as a Major in 1964. He chose to settle in Minnesota with his wife Elizabeth and two daughters, Tanya and Phyllis. Working for the United States Forestry Service as the local personnel officer, he earned meritorious recognition for his work in providing equal opportunities for minorities. Upon retirement in 1985, the Secretary of Agriculture, in ceremony in Washington, presented him with a Superior Services Award for his work with minorities and women.

My father and mother, Elizabeth C. Gomer, were intimately familiar with the decades-long effort toward integration and racial equality. My father states that, "together we helped integrate many a place." At one post, it was months before white customers in the laundromat realized that my mother was not someone's maid. At another, the African American staff members at the officer's club stopped in their tracks when my parents went swimming. They had never seen black people in the pool!

The airmen, named after the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which was near the airfield where they trained, were notable for their breaking of racial barriers in the Army Air Corp (which is now the Air Force), but have been involved in just about every American conflict -- from the Revolution to Desert Storm. My father says that he has seen a notable difference in attitude among people since he and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen started flying in World War II and his retirement in 1964. Today there is acceptance and thankfulness. It took 50 years for the Tuskegee Airmen to gain the recognition that they deserve.

"A couple of years ago, I had the honor of being invited to the 359th Bombardment Group reunion in the Twin Cities. And at the banquet, there was a standing ovation. These men had tears in their eyes, and they said, "We've waited 50 years to thank you for saving our butts."

Though he does not feel the glare of racism as he once did, "we will always have some racism," he told a reporter from the Globe Gazette, Clear Lake, Iowa. "As long as we have the powerful and the helpless, it will always be with us."

With tears in my own eyes and much love, I must say I am very proud of my father and give him my own standing ovation.

www.josephgomer.com
Reprinted with the generous permission of Phyllis Gomer-Douglass



Editor's Note

As evidenced in a number of his letters, my grandfather shared the racism of the time. I don't share those sentiments and applaud the significant contribution people of all color made to the war effort. World War II was the most destructive military conflict the world has ever seen, causing the deaths of tens of millions of people and terrible devastation across Europe, the Pacific, and parts of Asia. The "Greatest Generation" of Americans who served their country at this pivotal time came from both genders, many races, and virtually every conceivable walk of life. As in previous wars, African Americans faced white resistance and segregated conditions both within the military and on the home front. The nation's unparalleled need for troops gave thousands of African American soldiers, including many in noncombat service units, the chance to prove their mettle in battle and put to rest the assertion by military brass that blacks lacked the courage, discipline and intelligence to fight effectively.

This nation thanks you for your sacrifice. I thank you. You served this country with distinction and for that, we are eternally grateful.

Michael Ketchum