Remembering Tuskegee Airman Robert Friend 

Published 10:35 pm Sunday, July 7, 2019

Remember When column 

We don’t know Robert Friend, but I’d like to share with you that he was a Tuskegee Airman who just died at age 99. Shows again that the Army and Navy physical standards for their pilots are sound: the last Tokyo Raider, Dick Cole, died at 103, as did our own Col. Norme Frost. 

A little history for readers who are not airplane pilots like me: In 1939 the NAACP put pressure on the Army to train black Americans as pilots and other aircrew positions, not just cooks and drivers for Generals. The response was to set up a program at Tuskegee University for this purpose.  

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Eleanor Roosevelt made a point of having one of the Tuskegee pilots take her flying. The Army Air Corps made up a Fighter Group of Tuskegee Airmen and assigned them to bomber escort duty. Their P-51s sported red tails so they were readily recognizable to both the bomber crews and German fighter pilots. The Red Tails earned the distinction of never losing a bomber to enemy action. 

Robert Friend flew as wingman to Benjamin O. Davis, who later became the first black General in the Air Force. In a 28-year military career, Friend went on to serve as an operations officer in the Korean and Vietnam wars; worked on the Titan, Atlas and Delta rocket programs; and oversaw Project Blue Book, which collected and analyzed more than 12,000 reports of flying saucers” and other mysterious airborne objects. 

After retiring from the Air Force as a Colonel, Friend started an aerospace business with his daughter Karen that designed and built components for various space vehicles. A restored P-51 is painted in the livery of one of the planes Friend flew. 

Growing up in the segregated South, I was only slightly acquainted with only some of my black neighbors in Tryon and environs. These were mostly people I worked with. 

First was Jim Berry, who was hired to do the heavy work around my grandfather Rippy’s farm. Uncle Jim, as he was called, was on Rippy Hill often enough for me to grow fond of him and become his friend. He died one winter while I was away in the Air Force. 

I was once offered a ride by Belton Lyles, but since I did not know him, and had been instructed not to accept rides from strangers, I declined. He just smiled and drove on to Tryon without this very young passenger. I am sure he knew my family and probably a good bit about me! 

I met the Hannons at Tryon School; he was the custodian and she ran the cafeteria.  

I worked with Pope Wingo at Farthing & Covington grocery in Tryon. Pope drove the delivery truck, a tired ’40 Chevy panel truck. I liked for Pope to miss work because then I, a newly licensed driver at 15 years oldgot to practice driving the Chevy. Pope and I shared many Cokes and sacks of peanuts between his delivery runs. 

Next I met James Fox; we were both warehousemen at Tryon Builders Supply. Part of my job was to deliver small amounts of urgently needed supplies to the contractors, using a tired old Chevy that Hugh Jack had converted from a Butler’s Dairy milk truck. Eva Smith dubbed this ragged vehicle the “White Elephant,” I suppose because with neither bumper nor grille, its front fenders flapped like Dumbo’s ears. 

I taught James how to drive this truck; when next I saw James he was wearing the livery of a chauffeur! Decades later, he came with his legally blind wife Thelma to one of our Lions VIP (Visually Impaired Persons) luncheons. It was like old home week as James and I swapped stories about our White Elephant days. 

Of have been asked many times by the media about Eunice Waymon, who became Nina Simone. Our piano teacher, Mrs. Mazzy, had me hand letter some 50 programs for a recital at her course, I studio in Gillette Woods. I have written many words about Eunice and Mrs. Mazzy, but again, I was not privileged to get to know Eunice when we were young people. 

I know this is ‘way over my word limit, but I have to mention meeting Ben SuberFred Counts, Artie Hamilton, James Payne, his brother Alfred and wife Peggy, Pick and Rena BrownEmma Jean and son Marshall Lipscomb, Jimmy and Karen Twitty, Bill and Johnnie Mae Booker, Father Walter Bryan and his brother James, all since we retired.  I have written a good many words about these friends.   

wanted to show that even though segregated, I still managed to interact with a few black people. I welcomed the end of that era and have continued to form new friendships: for example Timothy Brown, on staff here at White Oak, is Pick and Rena’s son.