Lieutenant Colonel Robert Jones Friend, one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airman, passed away at the age of 99 last Friday. His daughter Karen Friend Crumlich confirmed sepsis as the cause of his death.
Unable to enlist in the not-yet-integrated Army Air Forces, Friend became one of the 355 pilots who served in the all-Black unit known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Friend’s passing leaves only 11 surviving Tuskegee Airmen.
Friend became interested in the aviation industry as a child and joined the Civilian Pilot Training program as a sophomore at the Pennsylvania HBCU, Lincoln University. After his rejection from the flight training from the Army Air Forces, Friend was accepted as an air cadet in the 99th Pursuit Squadron, a unit created in 1941 for Black men that was eventually named after their training site at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
The Lieutenant was assigned to the 322nd Fighter Group and flew 142 missions during his time in the unit. He became the primary wingman to the airmen’s commanding officer Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., who later became the first Black Air Force General. The Tuskegee Airmen were recognized for their bravery during World War II with a Congressional Gold Medal.
After World War II, Friend served as an operations officer during the Korean and Vietnam wars and went on to study astrophysics at UCLA. He became the executive at Stanford Mu and Fairchild Stratos aerospace companies and oversaw the government’s investigation into U.F.O’s.
Friend was married three times throughout his lifetime. His first two marriages to Doris (Bunny) Hall and Kathryn Ann Holland ended in divorce and his third wife Anna Friend died in 2010.
He is survived by two children from his first marriage, Thelma Hoffman and Robert Jr.; three children from his second marriage, Michael Friend, Debra Carter, and Dana Friend; daughter Karen Crumlich from his third marriage; adopted daughter, Clara Ann Browning, from his wife Anna’s previous marriage; 18 grandchildren; 32 great-grandchildren; and 14 great-great-grandchildren.