I had the good fortune to attend a talk given by Tuskegee Airman Joe Gomer on February 25 in Apple Valley, Minnesota. Although we both live in Minnesota and I had seen him numerous times at different Squadron functions, this was the first time I’d heard Joe speak for any length of time about his experiences as a pilot and an American who happened to have black skin.
The event was held at the Galaxie Library and the place was packed -
LaVone Kay, the CAF Red Tail Squadron’s Marketing Director, introduced Joe and then he began to speak.
He has a very dry sense of humor, which made the crowd really pay attention because they didn’t want to miss a word – or a chance for a good laugh.
Joe spoke for about 30 minutes and then took questions - which provided the opportunity for more anecdotes - for another 30. Some highlights:
- “We pilots are just the tip of the iceberg,” was the first thing Joe said. He was reinforcing what LaVone had said in his introduction – that thousands of other dedicated black men and women who never took to the skies are also called Tuskegee Airmen. “We were set up as an exact duplicate of the white AAC [Army Air Corps] which meant we had a lot of support crew people working with us. As far as my crew chief was concerned, the airplane I flew belonged to him – he just let me fly it!”
- Joe was born and raised in Iowa where, growing up, he didn’t encountered the harsh segregation that he would face in the military. Like all of the pilots I’ve ever met, he loved airplanes from the get-go, building models and looking at every airplane that flew overhead. Hamilton Field (“which used to be ‘Hamilton Cow Pasture’”) in Ellsworth had a pilot training program where as a “green country boy,” Joe took his first flight in a Taylorcraft.
|1940 Taylorcraft; photo by Alan Macon|
|This unique airplane was steered with a steering wheel rather than a stick.|
- He reported to Tuskegee in September, 1944 and received his wings in May 1943. “The training there was the same as white men experienced at their bases. I wasn’t concerned about comparing their experiences with ours. I just knew we had to be good because we got no second chances – a lot of guys washed out for one reason or another,” Joe said. Once in the field, he flew a progression of airplanes: P-40, P-39, P-47, and P-51C (2nd-hand). The Tuskegee-trained pilots had been trained on some; for others – including the P-51 Mustang – they read the manuals, got familiar with the cockpits, and then flew them!
Joe enjoyed flying every plane – even with their idiosyncrasies - and had stories about most of them. His wartime experiences in Italy and his homecoming will be featured in next week’s blog.
Meanwhile, if you’re in the Columbus, Mississippi area (or know someone who is) the RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit is set up there through tomorrow at the Hitching Lot Farmer’s Market. Next week, it moves on to Tulsa, Oklahoma where, beginning March 6, it will be set up at the TulsaAir and Space Museum and Planetarium. The Mustang will also be there.
The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven 501c3 non-profit organization that operates under the auspices of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information, please visit redtail.org.