Written by: Aiya Madarang
On June 21, Robert Friend, one of the last surviving members of the renowned Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, passed away at the age of 99.
Friend was a decorated fighter pilot and advocate for space technology research. Born in 1920 in South Carolina, he studied aviation at Lincoln University. In 1941, he enlisted in the newly-created all-black squadron at the Tuskegee Army Airfield, taking his place with his fellow pilots as one of the first black aviators in American history. During World War II, Colonel Friend flew a total of 142 combat missions, mainly flying a P-51 Mustang that he nicknamed “Bunny”, after his wife. He was responsible for successfully strafing German airfields in Greece in 1944, which earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross.
After the war, Friend continued his service in the wars in Korea and Vietnam as an operations officer. He is also known for overseeing Project Blue Book, a US Air Force operation from 1958 to 1963 dedicated to investigating thousands of reported UFO sightings to find evidence of extraterrestrial activity. Friend retired from the Air Force in 1971 after 28 years of military service.
Friend is best known for his history-making role as a Tuskegee Airman. Prior to World War II, African-Americans were barred from becoming military pilots. As a result of years of civil rights action and the urgency of the impending war, the US Army Corps established an all-black squadron in Tuskegee, Alabama and a training program led by the Tuskegee Institute. The Tuskegee Airmen went on to fly a total of 15,000 combat sorties and receive 150 Flying Cross and Legion of Merit decorations. In 2007, they were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for their historical contributions, and the Tuskegee Airmen remain widely credited for breaking some of the first racial barriers in the US military, paving the way for racial integration in the military after the war.