LONG BEACH, Calif. — Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Robert Friend, one of the last surviving members of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, has died, his daughter said. He was 99.
Friend’s daughter told CNN affiliate KCBS her father was surrounded by friends and family when he died Friday in California. The cause of death was sepsis, Karen Crumlich, Friend’s daughter, said.
“…We called the chaplain and we did a prayer,” Crumlich said. “And during the prayer, right when we said amen, he took his last breath.”
Friend flew 142 combat missions during World War II, including missions in North Africa and Europe, according to CAF Red Tail Squadron, a group dedicated to preserving the legacy of America’s first African-American military pilots.
Born in Columbia, South Carolina, 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.
Before the war, African-Americans were barred from flying for the U.S. military. But in 1941, under pressure from civil right groups, the U.S. Army Air Corps created an all-black squadron at the Tuskegee Army Airfield in Macon County, Alabama, according to Tuskegee Airmen Inc. They became known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
Friend also served during the Korea and Vietnam wars, retiring from the U.S. Air Force after a 28-year career, according to Red Tail Squadron. After he retired, “his expertise was utilized to oversee the design and production of space products for the Space Shuttle program, lead a company that creates components for the International Space Station” and worked on weapon and missile development for the Air Force, the group said.
Friend will be buried with full military honors most likely the weekend of July 4, she said. He is preceded in death by his wife, Anna, whose likeness was the inspiration for the painting of “Bunny” on the restored P-51 Mustang he once flew.
“He is with my mom. That is the one thing he wanted nine years ago,” Crumlich said. “He wanted to be with her; now he is with her.”
Crumlich also told KCBS that her father wanted to parachute out of a plane with the Golden Knight’s Army team for his 100th birthday, in his honor she is planning on taking his spot in February.