One of the last three surviving Arizona members of the historical Tuskegee Airmen has died at age 95.
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Robert Ashby died at home in Sun City, Phoenix, on Friday, March 5, according to a news release from the Archer-Ragsdale Chapter of the famous all-Black fighter pilots who never lost a bomber.
Born in Yemassee, South Carolina, in 1926, Ashby enlisted in the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet program at just 17 and was sent to active duty in August 1944. He faced discrimination in the Air Force when he was assigned to Japan, ejected by two white flying units and stripped of his pilot status.
Eventually, he was reassigned to Black units, where he had his pilot status reinstated and served for the next few years. He served diligently for 21 years including in Korea and Europe. He moved up the ranks to Lt. Col. before he retired from the service in 1965.
“In 1952,” the news release continued, “Ashby flew combat in B-26s for a year while stationed in Korea. In 1956, he was assigned to England and flew the T-33, B-45, and B-66 aircraft. Later Ashby trained in the B-47 bomber and later served as a B-47 instructor. In July 1965, Robert Ashby retired as a Lt. Col. after twenty-one years of honorable service in U.S. Air Force. During his career, Bob attended the University of Maryland and UCLA college programs.”
After returning home from his service in the U.S. Air Force, Ashby first worked with United Airlines as a flight operations instructor. In 1973, he made history again by becoming the first Black man hired by Frontier Airlines, Atlanta’s WAGA-TV FOX5 reported. He first served as a second officer pilot, first officer, and then as captain.
Ashby also became the first Black pilot to reach the mandatory retirement age of 60 before retiring in 1986, the release continued. He is survived by his wife, Donna, and three sons. His funeral service will be private due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to their distinguished service in the U.S. Airforce, Tuskegee Airmen are known for their longevity. Theodore Lumpkin Jr., 100, died in Los Angeles the day before he would turn 101 from complications of the coronavirus in January; Robert Holts was the last Nebraska member of the Airmen when he died at 96 in February; member Robert Friend died in Long Beach in 2019 at 99; and Willie Rogers died at 101 in St. Petersburg in 2016.
Many of them were also very humble. Lumpkin’s widow said she didn’t even know about his historical service until years after they were married.
“He didn’t talk about it much. He’d maybe mention some incident or a buddy, but we were married for a number of years until I heard about them,” Georgia Lumpkin said. “When I realized who these guys were and what they’d done, I was just overcome at how much they persevered. They did not bow down. They achieved things that detractors said they couldn’t, weren’t capable of doing.”