Thank you for allowing me to share my father’s story and the historically significant information of the Tuskegee Airmen. I especially appreciate those of you who continue to share your personal stories, some of which are included on this web site under “Comments & Stories”.
I try to update this website as often as I can but to be honest, my father keeps himself very, very busy and we are two peas in a pod. He finds it most rewarding to speak with children, sharing his story and telling them the importance of receiving an education and doing well in school. Over the years he has completed many speaking engagements and continues to do so at the age of 91 years.
I can only hope and pray to grow up to be just like him! ~ Phyllis Gomer Douglass
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…
On television today, March 29, 2007, I was watching President George W. Bush present the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor, to the Tuskegee Airmen. My father, Joseph Philip Gomer, and mother Elizabeth Caperton Gomer were present in the audience. This day has been a long time coming. The Tuskegee Airmen have waited well over 60 years to receive the honor that they deserve.
My father, with his wife and two daughters in tow, transferred to the Air Force Base in Duluth, Minnesota in 1963, retiring as a United States Air Force Major in 1964. As a child growing up in a small town, with few Black families, I regrettably admit that I hadn’t the slightest inkling of who the Tuskegee Airmen were. Or more to the point, that my father served as a fighter pilot with World War II’s famed Tuskegee Airmen. I passed through childhood and on into adulthood, before ever realizing that I had a member of this elite Fighter Group right under the same roof!
The talk of the prejudice and segregation that they endured as they selflessly fought for their country, even while they were fighting a second war for their civil rights back home, got me thinking about my childhood. There was never much talk in our household about prejudice and discrimination. In fact, I am not aware of a single time the color of our skin interfered with us accomplishing our goals. When we purchased our house in Piedmont Heights, the realtor walked around the neighborhood asking if anyone minded a Black family moving in. The only person who seemed to object was the Grandmother of a little girl, who became one of my best friends, who lived in the house next door. My sister Tanya told me that our neighbors Grandmother chased the seller’s car down the street, shouting about the wrongful sale of the house to a black family. Eventually, however, she apologized to the seller and said that we were wonderful neighbors. She was always very kind to me. One day boarding the bus to return home from elementary school, someone commented, “You are Black.” “Well, thanks for noticing,” I said smiling brightly. Later, at the start of sixth grade, my teacher had a conference with my mother because he had never taught a Black child. My mother handled that issue very diplomatically, and he turned out to be my favorite teacher! There were a few times throughout Junior High and even High School, that I had clandestine friendships with self-willed children who had formed their own opinions of equality, instead of adopting their parent’s prejudice.
My parents raised us believing that we, no matter our race, gender, social or religious status, were able to accomplish anything we wanted in life. Receiving a good education was stressed, but we were allowed to choose our own way, regardless of which direction it took us. My sister and I both went on to complete Masters Degrees in our chosen fields. We were raised as free, though enlightened, spirits in every sense of the word. Because of my upbringing, what little prejudice I have experienced in my lifetime is never taken as a personal attack on myself, or my race. I hear the words and see the actions, but have never allowed myself to receive the brunt of their intent. Instead I feel pity, and yes, forgiveness for the person who was raised to believe that any of it makes a difference. It’s not them talking. It is their parents, and their parent’s parents, and so on down the line. They are privy to a vicious cycle that only they have the personal where-with-all to break. So, I silently say a prayer for them and move on. I was taught to believe in myself.
“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.” In an era of civil unrest, my father grew up and became a man, and traversed his path in life, practicing tolerance, integrity, respect and compassion for others. This is what his parents instilled in him, and this is what my sister and I were taught from day one. Equality is easy to fight for when you see within yourself no difference from your fellow man. When you have no doubts whatsoever mentally, physically, and spiritually, you are willing to step up and fight on all fronts and prove that the naysayers are wrong. You are willing to break down barriers, open doors for those who follow behind you, and care for those who just don’t know any better. So, as one of the Tuskegee Airmen my father gladly fought a war that encompassed two fronts – the military and the country for which he was fighting. But it has taken me 45 years to put into words that which I have been taught by my parents, by watching how they interacted with others, by their direct actions, and what I have inherently grown to know from within.
As Christmas 1997 approached, I was met with the yearly conundrum of what to give my father (We still call him “Daddy”) who along with my mother, has everything and needs even less. The movie “The Tuskegee Airmen”, had been broadcast by HBO on August 26, 1995. Soon after, my Dad left the proverbial closet; and bit-by-bit he shared a story that I don’t think he ever thought would be of much interest to his two daughters. Being 11 years apart, my sister had more opportunity to be exposed to my Father’s military career then I had.
Many years later, as a result of the movie, the history of the Tuskegee Airmen as a whole seemed to go from a few loose pebbles to a virtual landslide of something deep and rich that had lain quietly in wait, to finally receive acknowledgement. So, that Christmas in 1997, I decided to create an original web site honoring my father’s achievements and “Honor thy Father: A Tuskegee Airman” was born. My “Daddy” was my personal hero.
My father was born on June 20, 1920 in Iowa Falls, Iowa. From the time he was a little boy, he was fascinated with model airplanes. Little did he know he would get his pilots license before his driver’s license. Growing up in one of two African American families within a population of 5,000, his family was readily accepted and embraced by the community. His father Philip Joseph Gomer, owned a janitorial business that serviced local businesses, and he worked for his father from the age of 12 while attending school. The only black in his class, he graduated from Iowa Falls High School with honors in 1938.
When his father passed away in 1938, the local businesses he had serviced and friends of the family pitched in money to help fund my father’s college education. He enrolled in the pre-engineering program at Ellsworth Community College (ECC), and graduated from ECC on May 29, 1940. That same year, the Civil Aeronautics Authority contacted ECC regarding offering flight training. My father jumped at the chance to fulfill his dream of flying. He returned to ECC to take the courses offered to prepare pilots for the military service. They became known as the Ellsworth Airforce, training with their flight instructor in a pasture outside of Iowa Falls.
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 War Department 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 in the morning 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. He got up and pulled the curtain back a couple of times, but the conductor closed them again. Finally, they got up and left.
My father went through pre-flight, basic and advanced training. His first combat aircraft training was on the P-40 Warhawk, which he claims was a monumental occasion that left a big impression in his life. 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 a few miles from Tuskegee, 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. With sheer courage and determination, 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 occasion he remembers vividly is when Mount Vesuvius erupted in March 1944. Upon taking off that day and swinging over the coastline, he could see the masses of red lava flowing down. It was a beautiful sight”, he said.
Later, his mission was changed from convoy escort to bomber escort. Their record was perfect, having 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. The German 88′s could get you if you flew straight for 17 seconds. I remember one burst hit our squadron 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 78 pilots of their own through accidents, training, and combat. Four 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 P-51canopy, 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 remembers seeing the swastika on its tail assembly “big as day.”
During WWII, the Tuskegee Airmen were credited with destroying 261 enemy planes, doing damage to 148 other opposing aircraft, flying 15,553 combat sorties and 1,578 missions in the theatres of North Africa and Italy. Sixty-six of the airmen were killed in combat and another 32 were shot down and became prisoners of war. In escorting over 200 bombing missions, the Airmen never lost an American bomber to an enemy fighter. So feared by the German pilots were the Airmen, that they were referred to as the “Schwartze Vogelmenshen” (Black Birdmen)
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, which in the segregated, race-conscious military of the times stood for “Negro”. He was ordered to the end of the line by the bigoted 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 just happy to be on his way home.
Along with his fellow fighter pilots, he had experienced 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”, my father stated. The pilot did not realize that the P-51 pilots flying cover for him were African American. He was overheard muttering under his breath, “It ain’t so.” When they were not fighting the Germans in the air, they fought racism on the ground.
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 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 to this country is something that never got into history books. It was just ignored. 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 millions of 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.”
After the war, black aviators remained in the segregated unit and my father became a 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. On June 19, 1948 in Columbus, Ohio, my father met the woman who was to become his wife while in a hospital for a fever of unknown origin. She was a member of an organization known as the Gray Ladies, working as a volunteer in rehabilitation and teaching arts and crafts. They married on March 12, 1949, the same year the Army Air Forces became the Air Force and the Black units were integrated. While at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, his assignment as Chief of Reconnaissance and Helicopter Aircraft Headquarter Tactical Air Command, qualified him to fly helicopters. Later, during the Korean War, my father served with the 315th Air Division in Japan. He was the Wing Technical Inspector responsible for reviewing all technical issues, 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. Subsequent Air Force assignments trained him in air defense and nuclear weapons, the latter taking him to the French River, just north of Duluth, Minnesota. Serving 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 Air Force for 22 years. Choosing to settle in Duluth, he accepted a position with the United States Forestry Service as the local personnel officer, where he earned meritorious recognition for his work in providing equal opportunities for minorities. Upon retirement in 1985, the Secretary of Agriculture, in a ceremony in Washington, D.C., presented him with a Superior Services Award for his work with minorities and women.
My father and mother were intimately familiar with the decades-long effort toward integration and racial equality. My father said 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!
Named after the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which was near the airfield where they trained, the Airmen were luminary in 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 noted a considerable difference and change in attitude among people, between the time he and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen started flying in World War II and his retirement in 1964. Today there is acceptance and gratitude.
“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.” Whenever I hear my father relay his story, with tears in my own eyes and much love, I am so very proud of my father and give him my own silent ovation. For all that the Tuskegee Airmen stand for, and his part in the making of such a historical legacy, reflects deeply on my own life and the choices I make. When he speaks of his experience, he is so humble. Life is about being fully present each and every moment, no matter what it is you are doing. Everything you do has a cause and effect, and the effect can be truly witnessed in his character, in the character of the woman who has stood by his side all these years, and in the character and success of the two daughters that they raised.
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 in Clear Lake, Iowa. “As long as we have the powerful and the helpless, it will always be with us.”
In 2004, my father was presented with a Doctorate of Humanities from the Board of Trustees of Ellsworth College. His acceptance speech was short and sweet. He began, as he always does when young people are present, by impressing upon them the importance of receiving a good education. And reiterating to the students, as he did my sister and I growing up, that no matter who you are or where you come from, it should not reflect on where you are going. Good communication and being appreciative of other people is key. As far back as I can remember, what my father said and did has always reflected these principles. He then expressed his gratitude and how honored he was to be receiving an Honorary Doctorate Degree from his alma mater. I will forever remember my father saying, “I will add this to my dash. And for those of you who do not know what a dash is, it is that line between the day you are born and the day you die.”
The magnitude of that statement strikes me each and every day. It is what each of us strives for in our lifetime. For that dash to honor our lives, and the lives of those we have left behind. So today I stand witness to the Tuskegee Airmen finally receiving the honor that they deserved so many years ago. The 332nd Fighter Group and 477th Bomber Group were presented with the highest award given by the House of Congress. The Congressional Gold Medal. That makes for one mighty hefty dash.
Some statistics that you would not find in history books…
- More than 10,000 blacks served during the American revolution.
- During the Civil War, 171 black regiments were raised and 19 Medals of Honor were awarded.
- Fourteen Medals of Honor were awarded to soldiers of the black regiments that fought in the Indian Wars.
- The 10th Calvary regiment had actually captured San Jan Hill before Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders made their famous charge during the Spanish-American War.
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Copyright – November 1997 – 2011.
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