By Jim Tortolano
A man who flew through storms of enemy gunfire and racial segregation during World War II touched down at a school in Garden Grove Monday to deliver a gentle, often funny message of gratitude and responsibility.
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Robert J. Friend, 97, one of 14 remaining “Tuskagee Airmen” who broke the color line of American pilots during the Second World War, addressed sixth-grade students at Murdy Elementary School about his journey through history.
In dealing with the issue of race bias during the war, Friend told the story of a white pilot, forced to land at the “colored” base because of heavy fog and bunk in a tent with black airmen, his first close encounter with people of another race.
That kind of humor leavened Friend’s remarks, which followed a question-and-answer format before about 60 students sitting on the carpet in Room 34.
In an understated manner, Friend told of loss, family and the responsibility that people have to each other. One of the hardest things about the war – he said, in response to a question – was making the emotional “adjustment” each time one of his three tent-mates was lost in action. “It was hard to accept the loss of a friend. Someone you lived with all the time.”
His chief emotion at the end of the war was one of uncertainty. “I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he said. “For years, every day I knew what I was going to do.” Already a pilot before the war, Friend became a part of the new U.S Air Force – spun off from the Army in 1947 – and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He retired in 1972.
His career took some unexpected turns. “I was in charge of investigating the issue of unidentified flying objects,” he said, referring to the “flying saucer” controversy, which surfaced in the Fifties. He ended up turning to the Old Testament for accounts of similar unexplained phenomena. The conclusion: “What can be explained is science. What can’t be explained is religion.”
Friend, a resident of Irvine, exploded some myths about the Tuskagee airmen. Contrary to popular belief, those pilots who trained at that university were not all black. Any non-white would-be aviator – “Indian or Mexican or whatever” – was enrolled there. “Tuskagee was not a place to train African-Americans. Tuskagee was a place to train anyone who was not white.”
Always eager, Friend was nicknamed “Beaver” for this energetic personality. His energy and excellent memory came through during the nearly two-hour event despite his nearly 10 decades of life.
Friend ascribes his longevity to his family, to whom he is grateful. His mother lived to be 103, and “I’m hoping to break her record.” His grandmother’s aunt, he said, lived to be 114 and often spoke casually about “Abe,” referring to Abraham Lincoln, the 16th U.S. president.
Friend’s appearance was the third in a series of “The Gratitude Project” created by teacher Valerie De Carlo. Earlier discussions have covered war, the Holocaust and disability.
“In 2015 I first wrote this project to give the grandchildren and sometimes the children of Vietnamese veterans who fought in that war, to hear what their elders had experienced. Also some American soldiers who fought in that war and to ask the question, ‘is there gratitude in war?’ and the answer is ‘yes, there is,’” said De Carlo.
The next year covered the issue of “gratitude in the face of life’s greatest challenges” with eight participants. This year’s theme is “power,” bringing the focus back to the origins. “We keep deepening the focus. The students keep looking at gratitude, not only about how it impacts them, but also the lives of the people who come in and speak to us,” she said.
Friend had this another expression of gratitude and a lesson for the students. A fellow airman shot down fled from the Germans for 29 days, often sheltered by members of the local resistance organizations. “A lot of people took a lot of chances,” he said. “If they were caught [helping American aviators] the SS would probably do them in,” then added, “We all have to do something to help other people, don’t we?”