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One of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen, Lt. Col. Robert Friend, dead at 99

Tuskegee Airman Lt. Col. Bob Friend rides in the annual Palm Springs Veterans Day Parade, Sunday, November 11, 2018.
Yahoo News

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – America has lost another of its original Tuskegee pilots with the passing of retired Lt. Col. Robert “Bob” Friend, who died Friday afternoon at a hospital in Long Beach, daughter Karen Friend Crumlich said.

Friend was 99 years old.

“My dad was my hero. He was always there for me and at the end I wanted to be there for him,” Crumlich told The Desert Sun. “He passed with family and dear friends surrounding him with love and affection.

“He is truly a National Treasure who I will carry in my heart,” she continued. “I promise to keep his legacy alive by telling his story to anyone who wants to hear it.”

Although he didn’t live in Palm Springs, Friend was a friend and frequent visitor of the Palm Springs Air Museum. A few years ago, in Friend’s honor — and with his help — the museum restored the P-51 Mustang “Bunny” and painted it with the same numbers and markings as the one flown by Friend during World War II.

“He was our guiding light,” said Air Museum Director Fred Bell. “It will be a long time before there is another man like him.”

Bell first met Friend in 2012, when a group of Tuskegee Airmen were honored at the museum’s annual gala.

The two hit it off instantly, Bell said, and Friend, who lived in Irvine, got involved with  the plane restoration and through that became a frequent visitor to the museum.

“Bob was probably the closest thing to a father figure that I had in some time,” said an emotional Bell, who lost his father years ago.

He described Friend as a patient, “glass is half full” person who was always positive and friendly and had an “infectious laugh.”

“One of the best days I remember is when we brought the airplane back and Bob got into the back of it and away he went,” Bell said, sitting in his office at the museum, where a large, framed photo of “Bunny” hangs on a wall and a signed photo of the colonel hangs above his desk. “He got so much joy from flying in that airplane. He was a sweet man.”