Lt. Col. Robert Friend, one of the last original members of the renowned Tuskegee Airmen, has died at age 99.
The airman’s daughter, Karen Friend Crumlich, confirmed her father’s passing to The Desert Sun, saying he died last Friday at a hospital in Long Beach, California, surrounded by the love of family and friends.
“My dad was my hero,” Crumlich told the outlet. “He was always there for me and at the end I wanted to be there for him.”
“He is truly a national treasure who I will carry in my heart,” she added. “I promise to keep his legacy alive by telling his story to anyone who wants to hear it.”
A leap year baby, the South Carolina native was born on Feb. 29, 1920. He would go on to join an elite group of all-Black fighter pilots trained at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute to fight in World War II, where they provided air support to heavy bomber planes. The U.S. military had barred African-Americans from flying its aircraft until about 1939, when the NAACP began challenging its racist policies.
During his service, Friend flew 142 combat missions in WWII and piloted P-47 and P-51 fighter planes, according to the outlet. His 28-year career in the Air Force also included service in both the Korean and Vietnam wars.
His work didn’t end there, however. Friend helped build space launch vehicles, including the Atlas and Delta rockets, and served as a foreign technology programs director, where he was tasked with developing programs related to national security.
After retiring from the military, Friend went on to found his own aerospace company.
He was one of the last original Tuskegee Airmen, a dwindling number of African-American men who risked their lives during a time when they weren’t afforded the same rights as their white comrades.
Fred Bell, the director of the Air Museum in Palm Springs, described Friend as a “glass-is-half-full” person who always looked at the bright side of things. He also noted his kind heart and “infectious” laugh.
“He was our guiding light,” Bell told The Desert News of his dear friend. “It will be a long time before there is another man like him.”
The two first met in 2012, when the museum honored a group of Tuskegee Airmen at its annual gala. They formed a fast friendship as Friend became a frequent visitor of the museum.
“Bob was probably the closest thing to a father figure that I had in some time,” Bell added.
Later this year, a replica of the red-tailed plane Friend flew during WWII, a restored P-51 Mustang “Bunny,” will take flight Sept. 11-12, and will feature a special tribute logo in his honor, The Desert Sun reported.
“He got so much joy from flying in that airplane,” said Bell. “He was a sweet man.”
Funeral arrangements haven’t been announced at this writing.