The 12 Iowa natives who became part of the famed Tuskegee Airmen of World War Two were honored at Simpson College Tuesday evening with the 2010 George Washington Carver Medal.
The Tuskegee Airmen were an all black fighter group that led the way in overcoming segregation in the military. Four of the five surviving Iowans visited the Indianola campus for the ceremony.
Robert Martin, who is originally from Dubuque, said the honor was exciting because of its link to Carver. “I never thought that my name would ever be mentioned in the same breath with Dr. George Washington Carver, he being so great, and my being so small,” Martin said.
Carver attended Simpson College and later went on to fame as a pioneering black researcher who made many advances in agriculture, most notably with peanuts. Carver also taught at the Tuskegee Institute where the airmen trained, and that also made the award significant to airman Joseph Gomer of Iowa Falls.
Gomer says Carver’s lab was on the campus and he remembers seeing Carver’s distinctive figure through his window. “We knew great things were going on there, but we didn’t really appreciate the amount of history that was being made by him, or by us,” Gomer says.
Gomer says it’s hard to believe now that he’s getting an honor linking him with Carver. Gomer says he was just a green country boy, and never would have realized that 68 years later he would be given a medal cast in honor of Carver in recognition of the things he did as a Tuskegee pilot. Gomer says at the time he didn’t think about the social impact of what the airmen where doing.
He says,”No, I just wanted to fight for my country.” Gomer says he was asked by a fourth grader once why he fought so hard for a country that treated him so poorly. Gomer said he told the student “this was all I have, America is my nation and I was willing to put my life on the line for it.”
The airmen say this honor from Simpson is one of many they have received as their story became more well known and people started recognizing what they went through. Martin says this honor and others are very gratifying because they never sought them out.
“You can’t say what you deserved. You can’t say, we should have got it,” Martin says, “there’s not thought in that area. This is something on high. You don’t go out and work for these things, you go out and do what you’re going to do, and if someone recognizes that it is a fine achievement, then you can say thanks.”
The Tuskegee Airmen conduct many talks for school children and also have a scholarship fund to help those who can’t afford college. Martin says their message is that you can overcome anything with education. He says the Tuskegee Airmen showed that is true by overcoming the racial prejudice and becoming a top military unit.
Martin says being a fighter pilot was something everyone said was beyond an black man’s ability. So he says they try to help the kids by helping them educate themselves, so they can reach for their goals.
Simpson College established the Carver Medal to annually recognize someone who has served as an inspiration to others. To an individual who has demonstrated leadership and conviction, advanced the fields of science, education, the arts or religion, and dedicated themselves to addressing humanitarian issues.
There are five living Iowa natives who were Tuskegee airmen: James E. Bowman of Des Moines; Robert L. Martin of Dubuque; George R. Miller of Des Moines; Thurman E. Spriggs of Des Moines. The seven Iowa airmen who have died are: William V. Bibb of Ottumwa; Russell L. Collins of Davenport; Maurice V. Esters of Webster City; Clarence A. Oliphant of Council Bluffs; Robert M. Parkey of Des Moines; Luther H. Smith of Des Moines; Robert W. Williams of Ottumwa. Relatives of the dead airmen were also on hand for the ceremony.
The airmen that were honored were all pilots. There may be other Iowans who served as crewmembers, mechanics and support personel with the Tuskegee Airmen, but records were not kept of their home states, making it hard to nail down their numbers.
Tuskegee photos courtesy of Robert Morris, founder of the WWII Iowa Tuskegee Airmen Memorial.