Oct. 12--Joseph Philip Gomer, Minnesota's last surviving member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, died late Thursday night. He was 93.
"RIP Joseph Phillip Gomer. Father and one of the last remaining Tuskegee Airmen. I love you!" his daughter, Phyllis Douglass, posted on her Facebook page Friday. She said her father was suffering from cancer and was in hospice at Ecumen Lakeshore in Duluth.
The success of the Tuskegee Airmen is credited with helping prompt the integration of U.S. armed forces in 1948.
The outfit lost 66 pilots killed in action; 32 pilots were captured. Second Lt. Gomer flew 68 combat missions in P-47 and P-51 fighters, surviving a crash landing and having his plane shot up by a German fighter.
In 2007, Gomer related how a fourth-grader once asked him why he fought so hard for a country that treated him, a black man, 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.
Over the past two decades, Tuskegee veterans saw a new appreciation for their efforts. In Duluth, Gomer was treated as the hero he was.
In 2012, a life-sized bronze statue of a young Gomer in his flight suit was created for the Duluth International Airport's new terminal. The four sides of its base display names of sponsors, a biography of Gomer, a synopsis of the Tuskegee Airmen, and, in front, this quote from Gomer:
"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."
Matt Carter, 87, met Gomer in 1985 and they became fast friends who shared similar experiences as people of color in the predominately white Northland.
Carter spent time with Gomer twice a day for the past three months. He was with him for 11 hours Thursday and had an inkling that "his time was coming."
He was told Gomer had died as he prepared to visit him again Friday morning.
"We had some wonderful times," Carter said.
Gomer loved to fish and spent much of his summers in Ely.
Carter said Gomer taught him a valuable lesson once, one he recalled his mother telling him as a child.
"Always have something good to say about someone," Carter said. It's how Gomer led his life, he said.
"He was a common man. Quiet. He was a man who deserved everything the community could honor him with."
A good friend
Durbin Keeney of the Northland Veterans Services Committee was instrumental in getting the monument built at the airport. He and Gomer become good friends, with Durbin visiting the pilot several times a week up until his death.
He said Gomer was prepared for death, and that eases his sadness.
"You know it's going to happen," he said. "It's always hard when it does."
As Durbin became friends with Gomer about 20 years ago, he noticed that while there were plenty of monuments or public places named after other area war veterans, there was nothing for Gomer.
Durbin said he prefers monuments to memorials, allowing the person who is honored to enjoy it.
"Let's do this for Joe," Durbin recalled telling others as the effort to erect the statue at the airport began.
Durbin, accustomed to raising money for causes over the years, said "this was the easiest sell I ever had."
Gomer's story sold itself and people were eager to honor him, he said.
Gomer and his wife, Liz, were married for 63 years and Durbin recalled a visit Joe made to her last fall just before she died. It was the most tender moment Durbin has ever seen.
"Joe just crawled into bed with her and held her," Durbin said. "That's love. Period."
He said Liz was his anchor, and was always there to keep Gomer humble despite the accolades over the years.
"He knew how to take the adulation," Durbin said.
Durbin said his friend should not only be known for his war exploits but also for the exemplary life he led in Duluth. He said he will always recall his "laughter, his smile. Those sparkling eyes. The firm handshake."
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