Tuskegee Airman Robert Friend, who flew 142 WWII combat missions, dies at 99
LONG BEACH, Calif. — World War II pilot Robert Friend, one of the last original members of the famed all-black Tuskegee Airmen, has died at the age of 99.
Friend’s daughter, Karen Friend Crumlich, told The Desert Sun her father died Friday at a Southern California hospital.
Born in South Carolina on 1920’s leap day, Friend flew 142 combat missions in World War II as part of the elite group of fighter pilots trained at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute. The program was created after the NAACP began challenging policies barring black people from flying military aircraft.
Friend’s 28-year Air Force career included service in the Korean and Vietnam wars. He also worked on space launch vehicles and served as foreign technology program director before retiring as a lieutenant colonel and forming his own aerospace company.
Up until last year, Friend signed autographs and told his story at schools, his daughter, Karen Crumlich, told television station KCAL.
The men in his unit were trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, and were the first black aviators in the Air Corps. The airmen completed more than 15,000 missions in Europe and North Africa, and earned more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses.
Friend frequently visited the Palm Springs Air Museum, which restored a P-51 Mustang “Bunny” similar to the one flown by Friend during World War II.
“He was our guiding light,” said Air Museum Director Fred Bell told The Desert Sun. “It will be a long time before there is another man like him.”
He died of sepsis, surrounded by family and friends after they said a prayer, his daughter said.
“And during the prayer, right when we said ‘amen,’ he took his last breath,” Crumlich told KCAL.
Born in Columbia, S.C., in 1920, Friend attempted to enlist in the Army to fly but was turned away, according to an account published by the Red Tail Squadron. Undaunted, he took aviation courses at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.
There were 992 Tuskegee Airmen who graduated the Tuskegee Army Air Field between 1942 and 1946, according to the Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Museum.
The Tuskegee Airmen Inc. said it’s impossible to know exactly how many members from the program that ran March 22, 1941, to Nov. 5, 1949, are still alive, but as of May 2019 there were 12 of 355 single-engine pilots who served in the Mediterranean theater operation during World War II still alive.
The ranks dropped by one Friday, but Friend’s daughter says she will “keep his legacy alive by telling his story to anyone who wants to hear it.”