- Reporters Desk
Photo and article by Ivan Adame, Editorial Intern
Lt. Col. Robert Friend, retired pilot of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, received a congressional recognition for his service Feb. 8, at the Battleship Iowa, during a celebration of Black History Month.
The award was delivered on behalf of Rep. Janice Hahn by district staff assistant German Castilla. Castilla then read aloud Hahn’s message to Friend:
“… in honor of his courageous, loyal and dedicated service to our nation. It gives me great pleasure to salute a veteran of the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group. Your valiant fight against fascism in Europe helped secure the world from tyranny and your fight against racism at home helped pave the way for desegregation of the United States Armed Forces and civil right movements.”
Friend’s appearance preceded a screening of the 1995 film Tuskegee Airmen. He was open for questions from the public.
“I always enjoy these things because I like to talk to people on this subject because I know what happened,” Friend asserted. “I know what happened.”
The 94-year-old, who once successfully escorted a wounded bomber from German jets, was fascinated by the planes that flew over his home in South Carolina, and later, in New York.
He sought out pulp magazines with accounts of World War I fighter pilots, which inspired him to take flying courses during high school. This had made him not only knowledgeable about operating an aircraft, it also counted towards the college requirement necessary to join the Tuskegee force.
However, racial barriers had blocked him from moving forward. While he was allowed to enroll in a civilian pilot training program, the African American pilots were not trusted by a racist military staff.
“This civilian pilot training came about because we thought we needed to keep up with the rest of the world,” Friend said. “As for finishing this requirement I found out, lo and behold, that there were racial issues and because of the racial issues, they wouldn’t accept me at that time. But later, they initiated the program down at Tuskegee and I was lucky enough to be accepted again and made part of that program.”
Best known for their escorting of the 15th Air Force bombers in the European theater, the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group had the distinction of losing few fighter planes and even fewer of their escorts, while fending off and destroying technically superior Jagdgeschwader 7 fighter jets.