Tuskegee Airman pilot Joe Gomer was born on June 20, 1920 in Iowa Falls, Iowa. The Gomer family was one of only two African American families in their small town. Growing up, he was fascinated by model airplanes and dreamed of becoming a pilot. He worked in his father’s janitorial business from the age of 12.
Gomer and his brother Charles attended Iowa Falls High School, and in 1938 he was the school’s only African American in his graduating class. Sadly, his father passed away that same year. His community rallied together to help fund Gomer’s attendance at Ellsworth College to study pre-engineering. He earned his degree and continued on at the school to attend their flight training program, learning to fly in a pasture outside of town.
As the United States marched into World War II, Gomer enlisted in the Army in July of 1942 at the age of 22. He applied for and was accepted into the new aviation cadet training program for African Americans at Tuskegee Army Airfield in Tuskegee, Alabama. He would become the first black officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps from the state of Iowa.
After earning his wings in May of 1943 and completing all advanced training, Gomer deployed to Italy with the 332ndFighter Group of the 301stFighter Squadron. In combat, he flew 68 missions over Italy and Germany. He had several close brushes with danger, including a crash landing in a P-39, a lost canopy while flying a P-51 and survived being riddled by German bullets in a P-47.
Even though he bravely served his country during the War, Gomer experienced the sting of racism, regardless of his status of military officer and World War II combat pilot. Leaving his hometown and traveling to Alabama, then around the world, Gomer came face to face with unjust and cruel treatment. Even in the theaters of War, Gomer and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen remained segregated from their white counterparts and were treated as inferior to German prisoners.
After the War, Gomer married Elizabeth Caperton on March 12, 1949, and together they raised two daughters. He remained in the U.S. Air Force and became a helicopter pilot serving in Japan during the Korean War, then a nuclear weapons technician. In 1964 he retired with the rank of Major. He spent the next 21 years as a personnel officer for the U.S. Forest Service, retiring in 1985. He received a Superior Services Award from the Secretary of Agriculture for his outstanding work with minorities and women.
Into his retirement, Gomer remained active even very late in his life, giving his time talking to school groups and at community events 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.”
For his service as a Tuskegee Airman and community leader, Gomer was inducted into the Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame in 2004. He received a Doctorate of Humanities from the Board of Trustees of Ellsworth College in 2004 and their Distinguished Alumni Award in 2009.
Gomer passed away in October in 2013. There are two statues in Iowa to honor his life and service located at Duluth International Airportand on thegrounds of Ellsworth College.
The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven organization dedicated to educating audiences across the country about the history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, America’s first black military pilots and their support personnel. Learn more at www.redtail.org.