Recipient Name Robert Friend
Recipient Age 93
Branch of Military Served: US Army Air Corp
Dates Served:
Military Rank: LC
Highlights of Military Service Flying intrigued Lt. Col. Bob Friend from the beginning. As a youngster, he fashioned airplanes from cardboard boxes and transformed his grandmother’s overturned chairs into cockpits. When World War I pilots began detailing their experiences in magazines, Friend knew flying in the military was exactly what he wanted to do.Friend was a Tuskegee Airman, one of the first African American pilots to serve in the U.S. military. He was assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group and was stationed in Europe during World War II. The Irvine City Council honored the long-time Irvine resident at its meeting this week. At 93, Friend is sharp, humble, and quick to laugh. In the military, his nickname was “Beaver,” as in “Eager Beaver,” because he was always trying to do something, he said. And he still is – he’s a member of the board of directors for Stanford Mu Company, where he’s worked for the past 19 years. “You have to grow tired to retire,” he said. Friend is one of the last surviving members of the distinguished group of pilots whose experiences were recently commemorated in the film “Red Tails,” produced by George Lucas and named for their planes’ painted red tails. Friend said the movie was successful because it portrayed the experience of the group, rather than the individual, and it took an enormous amount of teamwork to accomplish their objectives, he said.

In college, Friend took regular classes during the day and added six hours of flying curriculum at night. He hadn’t flown yet, but he already had hands on experience repairing Liberty engines used in the military. When Friend enlisted in 1942 after he passed his tests and flight training, the armed forces were still segregated. Non-white pilots were trained in Tuskegee, Ala., he said. “It didn’t matter if he was Chinese or whatever else, if he wasn’t white, he went to Tuskegee,” he said. “All of these people were essentially accepted as being what they were.” There were a few incidences of racism, he said, but his 1,250-person group was homogenous. Everyone was black. “The thing is, truthfully, I don’t believe that everybody in the military at that time knew that the Red Tails were black pilots,” Friend said, recalling a time when he landed at a base and allowed a white colleague to examine his aircraft without fear of vandalism. Friend said you can find the bad in anything if you really try, so he focuses on the positive, the new objective, even when it comes to race relations. Dec. 29, 1944, sticks out in his mind. It was a terrible day; pilots could see their own formations, but not the horizon or the ground or the sky. When a group of white pilots returned from their mission, they found their bases closed due to the wind and weather conditions. They landed at the Red Tail’s base in Ramitelli, Italy, where they remained for five days, Friend said. “While they were there, there was only one thing they could do. Sleep with us,” he laughed. “They told them, ‘go find some guys who will take you in.'” There were disagreements, of course, but that can happen in any group of a few hundred men, regardless of race, he said. Last year when those pilots held a reunion in San Diego, they invited the Red Tails. “Many of them were descendants, they said ‘my father couldn’t talk any better about people’ during the time in which they stayed with us. They even said our cooks were better,” he said. But with segregation came staffing challenges. One of the obstacles faced by Gen. Benjamin Davis, the first black general in the Air Force, was training a fresh batch of recruits without any more experienced servicemen to rely on. “He couldn’t say, ‘oh where’s Jimmy Dolittle,’ cuz we didn’t have a Jimmy Dolittle. So consequently we had to work harder,” Friend said. When another group of black servicemen was formed, the pool in Tuskegee stayed the same size, so men were recycled and flew more missions, he said. Friend loved flying and opted to stay in the military for the next 30 years, serving in Vietnam. He later headed up the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Program, which identified cases of Unidentified Flying Objects brought to the attention of the Air Force. Friend’s family is full of Tuskegee Airmen, with one cousin and three friends-turned-brother-in-laws who served alongside him. “The only reason [I have three] is because I ran out of sisters,” he laughed. “They came home with me and got attached to my sisters.” After he left the service in 1972, Friend took a job that brought him to Irvine – though he isn’t sure who got there first, him or the city, he joked. He raised his family there and has stayed ever since. “I think a lot of people have done things,” he said. “They just haven’t taken a look at really and truthfully what they’ve done.”