PALM SPRINGS, Calif. - America has lost another of its original Tuskegee pilots with the passing of retired Lt. Col. Robert “Bob” Friend, who died Friday afternoon at a hospital in Long Beach, daughter Karen Friend Crumlich said.
Friend was 99 years old.
“My dad was my hero. He was always there for me and at the end I wanted to be there for him,” Crumlich told The Desert Sun. “He passed with family and dear friends surrounding him with love and affection.
“He is truly a National Treasure who I will carry in my heart,” she continued. “I promise to keep his legacy alive by telling his story to anyone who wants to hear it.”
'Another hole in our formation': Richard Cole, last surviving member of the Doolittle Raiders, dies at 103 in Texas
Although he didn’t live in Palm Springs, Friend was a friend and frequent visitor of the Palm Springs Air Museum. A few years ago, in Friend’s honor — and with his help — the museum restored the P-51 Mustang “Bunny” and painted it with the same numbers and markings as the one flown by Friend during World War II.
“He was our guiding light,” said Air Museum Director Fred Bell. “It will be a long time before there is another man like him.”
Bell first met Friend in 2012, when a group of Tuskegee Airmen were honored at the museum’s annual gala.
The two hit it off instantly, Bell said, and Friend, who lived in Irvine, got involved with the plane restoration and through that became a frequent visitor to the museum.
“Bob was probably the closest thing to a father figure that I had in some time,” said an emotional Bell, who lost his father years ago.
He described Friend as a patient, “glass is half full” person who was always positive and friendly and had an “infectious laugh.”
“One of the best days I remember is when we brought the airplane back and Bob got into the back of it and away he went,” Bell said, sitting in his office at the museum, where a large, framed photo of “Bunny” hangs on a wall and a signed photo of the colonel hangs above his desk. “He got so much joy from flying in that airplane. He was a sweet man.”
'I was shaking': D-Day battle still fresh for surviving veterans 75 years later
When at the museum, Friend would often take a chair and go sit next to the airplane, happy to talk to anyone who stopped by about “Bunny” and his experiences in the military.
“It would be a hundred degrees and he would sit there, and he would talk to them, and if there were a thousand people there, he would have greeted each one,” Bell said. “He loved people. He genuinely loved being around people.”
A leap year baby, Friend was born on Feb. 29, 1920, in Columbia, South Carolina.
Friend was among a dwindling population of African American men who made history during World War II, a time of segregation in the United States when people of color — black Americans in particular — were not afforded the same rights as their white neighbors.
“I never felt that I was anything but an American doing a job,” Friend told The Desert Sun in a 2017 interview, explaining that he didn’t see himself as a man of color.
The military had allowed only whites to fly its aircraft until around 1939, when the NAACP began challenging the military’s policies. With the threat of legal action, the U.S. Army Air Corps created a program to train black pilots, bombardiers, navigators and aircraft maintenance and ground crews at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
The Tuskegee Airmen became an elite group of fighter pilots, providing air support to the heavy bombers flown by the U.S. during the war.
Friend was an experienced pilot when he joined the Tuskegee “Red Tails” as they were called, because their aircraft tails were painted red. He served as wingman for the commander of the Tuskegees, Benjamin O. Davis, who later became the first African American general in the U.S. Air Force.
'We were completely segregated': WWII airmen, segregated by race, finally meet decades later
A war hero, then back to slavery: A slave became a Revolutionary War hero. Now, 151 years late, he's being honored
Friend flew 142 combat missions in World War II in P-47 and P-51 fighter aircraft. His 28-year career with the Air Force also included service in the Korean and Vietnam wars. He finished his education at the Air Force Institution of Technology.
Other duties with the Air Force included serving as assistant deputy of launch vehicles, working on space launch vehicles such as the Titan, Atlas and Delta rockets and the space shuttle, Palm Springs Air Museum officials said. He served as a foreign technology program director, where he identified and monitored research and development programs related to national security.
Following his military service, he went on to form an aerospace company, where he worked until about a year ago, Bell said.
“He went to work every day with his beloved daughter, Karen,” Bell said.
"Bunny" is flown every year at the Reno National Air Races in Nevada in honor of Friend and all the Tuskegee Airmen. Last year, “Bunny” took third place at the races and Friend was there to accept the trophy for the museum.
The plane will fly again this year, Sept. 11-12, with a special tribute logo in honor of Friend, Bell said.
“This will always be his plane,” Bell said.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Follow Sherry Barkas on Twitter @TDSSherryBarkas
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: One of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen, Lt. Col. Robert Friend, dead at 99