DULUTH, Minn., October 10, 2013 (AP) — Minnesota's last surviving Tuskegee Airman, Joseph Philip Gomer of Duluth, has died. He was 93.
His daughter, Phyllis Douglass, of Claremont, Calif., told The Associated Press on Friday that he died of cancer Thursday at the Ecumen Lakeshore nursing home in Duluth.
During World War II, Gomer was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, America's first black fighter pilots, who protected U.S. bombers. Blacks were not allowed to become pilots before the war, but the Tuskegee Airmen became one of World War II's most respected fighter units. Their success is credited with helping prompt the integration of the military in 1948.
Gomer flew 68 combat missions in P-47s and P-51s over northern Africa, Italy and Germany. He survived a crash landing and having his plane shot up by a German fighter. But he would later tell how a "short, fat, red-necked captain" ordered him to the back of the line to board a troop ship for home because he was black.
A life-sized bronze statue of a young Gomer in his flight suit stands at the Duluth airport terminal. The Duluth News Tribune reports the statue includes a quote from him:
"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," he once said.
Duluth Mayor Don Ness issued a statement noting that Gomer was able to witness the unveiling of the statue. He called Gomer a national hero who had been an integral part of the community ever since he moved to Duluth.
"The Joe Gomer Monument will forever serve as a reminder of Joe's vast contributions to our community and country," he said.
Another statue of Gomer was unveiled earlier this year in his hometown of Iowa Falls, Iowa.
Gomer stayed in the military after the war and retired from the Air Force as a major in 1964. He then went to work for the U.S. Forest Service in Minnesota as a personnel officer, retiring in 1985 but remaining active into his 90s. He often spoke to schools and other groups about the Tuskegee Airmen and the importance of education.
He once related how a fourth-grader asked him why he fought so hard for a country that treated him 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.
Gomer was part of a delegation of surviving Tuskegee Airmen invited to attend the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama. President George W. Bush presented the aviators with the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007.