For nearly a third of his remarkable life, Robert J. Friend was a career military man taking part in three wars — World War II, Korea and Viet Nam. But while it makes him a hero in many people’s eyes, it’s not what makes him special.
Friend, 96, is a Tuskegee Airman, one of the first African Americans to fly military aircraft in combat.
A retired Lt. Colonel from the Army Air Corps and US Air Force, Friend is the oldest living Tuskegee Airman pilot. But he is spry and engaging, as witnessed by the diverse audience that filled the community room of the Sunland-Tujunga Library on Friday, March 11.
Friend said that, to his knowledge, there are only 20 surviving pilots. When asked if he wanted to be the last one standing, he replied with a smile, “No, because then I know who would be next.”
Until the 1940s, African Americans were denied leadership opportunities throughout the US Armed Forces, and were barred from flying. But pressure from the NAACP and other civil rights groups, as well as the black press, forced the Army Air Corps to reluctantly create a training program for African Americans to fly and manage military aircraft — even though they were still assigned to segregated units.
The personnel included navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff and instructors, along with pilots.
“They were just as important as the pilots,” Friend said. “We couldn’t get that airplane off the ground without fuel. We didn’t want to get it off the ground without ammunition …. Today all the memories center around the pilots because they are the easiest to identify.
“I tell you, if I didn’t look down and see all those friendly faces before I left, it would have been a lot harder to do the job. I was just a quarterback; those were the linemen.”
They were called the Tuskegee Airman because they trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field (also known as Moton Field) in Alabama. Four all-black elite units would eventually be created during World War II, beginning with the 99th Fighter Squadron. The pilots primarily flew escort missions, accompanying bombers attacking enemy targets. Their job was to get the bombers to their targets and bring them back safely — and take out enemy aircraft in aerial battles if necessary.
But “Tuskegee was not a place to train African Americans. It was a place to train people who were not white,” Friend said. “We had Native Americans, Chinese, West Indians, Haitians, Mid-Easterners, Dominican Republicans…[the soldiers there] certainly learned how to deal with people from a lot of different backgrounds. And we were all there for the same purpose — win World War II.”
“You can legislate all you want. If the people don’t do the job, it isn’t going to be done.”
Friend himself enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942. After completing his training, he was assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group; it was deployed in Europe in 1944, and based in Italy. As a Combat Operations Officer, Friend was responsible for planning and organizing strategic and tactical air missions. He flew the North American P-51 Mustang with the famous “red tail,” in 142 combat missions.
Friend said a reason their planes had “red tails” was so the bombers could identify them as escorts.
“There were four groups over there flying the same aircraft for the 15th Air Force,” he said. “All of them had distinctive tails. One [group] had striped tails, one had yellow tails, another had checkerboard tails. Ours were red. And those bomber crews had to look for them. Because when you’d change [escort crews], sometimes our people might try to shoot you down because they didn’t recognize you as being one of our aircraft.”
Of the 179 bomber escort missions flown by the 332nd Fighter Group, they battled enemy aircraft 35 times. In those 35 encounters, they only lost seven bombers. The total number of lost bombers in all missions was 27.
Despite their success, the Tuskegee Airmen — and other people of color — still endured rigid segregation in the military until President Harry Truman officially desegregated all armed forces in 1948.
That recollection also brought to mind a funny quip from Friend.
“A lady asked me what was the greatest thing about desegregation,” Friend said. “I told her, ‘fewer bathrooms.’”
The Airmen’s exploits have been celebrated in feature films like the George Lucas-produced “Red Tails” in 2012, and the 1995 HBO production simply titled “The Tuskegee Airmen.” But even though he happily relates his experiences, Friend said he knows it can be hard for those who fought to let go of the more grim aspects of combat.
“I think some of it is because war is not easily explained to everyone,” he said. “Some people go to movies and see something, and think that’s war. One of the things I try to tell veterans when I talk to them: don’t dwell on it. If you do, it will get you the second or third time around. Deal with the present.”
After completing his talk and answering questions, Friend patiently and graciously signed autographs and took pictures with all who wanted one. And everybody wanted both.
Tujunga resident Liuska Rincon said she saw “Red Tails” three years ago, and when she learned that Friend was appearing, “I felt like I had to meet one of them.”
“Now I want to adopt him as my grandfather,” Rincon said. “He looks like a sweet man. Obviously he went through a lot during the war, and the fact that he is here at 96 and still telling the stories and sharing them with us is amazing.”
Another Tujunga resident said he came, in part, because they shared the same name.
“I saw one of the posters [advertising the colonel’s appearance] and said ‘wait a minute — that’s my name,” said the man, Robert Friend, laughing. “I had met one other Bob Friend when I was a boy, and he was a baseball pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“It was nice to see him, and get a little of the history. Seeing what he went through — what they went through — with segregation; I grew up in Pennsylvania, in a neighborhood with Italians, Puerto Ricans, you had everybody and we all got along. To not even know about the Tuskegee Airmen until the movie came out, once I realized he was going to be here … he tells a really good story.”
He’s doing more than “telling a good story.” At 96, Friend is reminding America of what it used to be as a nation, and what it still can become.
Friend will next appear in the Valley on April 23, riding in the city of Burbank’s 35th annual “Burbank on Parade.” This year’s theme is “Our Heroes,” showcasing those who have served in the military, fire and police. The parade — which travels east on Olive Avenue, from Keystone Street to Lomita Street, begins at 11 a..m.
You can contact Robert J. Friend via Facebook.