‘An American Doing a Job’

Lieutenant Colonel Robert J. Friend (via YouTube)

On no subject is America touchier than race. And people like to pick at our wounds, so that no scab forms. After the recent Democratic presidential debates, Kamala Harris went through some grief for not being black enough (or something). Like many Americans — most? — she is of mixed ancestry. That’s us.

To read about the Harris brouhaha, go here.

In the midst of the brouhaha, I happened to read an obit — this one:

Robert J. Friend, one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen, who defied racism at home and enemy fire over Europe and who later oversaw the federal government’s investigation into U.F.O.s, died on Friday in Long Beach, Calif. He was 99.

I want to emphasize the final line of the obit — and kudos, as usual, to the writer, Sam Roberts — but let me excerpt some paragraphs that come before:

Lieutenant Colonel Friend recalled at least two perilous missions, both in 1944.

Bullets from his 50-caliber machine guns struck an oil barge in Germany, detonating an explosion that nearly downed his own plane. A few days later, flying at night in foul weather, with his plane hobbled by mechanical flaws, he bailed out over a mountainous part of Italy. As he hit the ground he spotted a woman running toward him brandishing a knife.

It turned out, he told The Washington Post, that she was desperate only for the silk from his parachute.

I did not quite see that coming.

Okay, the closing paragraphs:

The adversity Lieutenant Colonel Friend encountered during the war came not just from the enemy. He, like the others in his unit, had to deal with the racism of fellow Americans. On one occasion, in Sicily, white servicemen refused to share their quarters with African-Americans, he told The Desert Sun in Palm Springs, Calif., in 2017.

But he did not think of himself as a racial trailblazer so much as simply a pilot fighting for his country, he said. “I never felt that I was anything but an American doing a job,” he said.


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