The Tuskegee Airmen made history 70 years ago as the first African Americans to fly combat during World War II. One of the few surviving members of the Airmen met with World War II B-17 pilots at the Valencia Terrace Senior Living Center in Corona Tuesday. Tony Shin reports from Corona for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on May 14, 2013.
Seventy years ago, the Tuskegee Airmen made history by being the first African Americans to fly combat during World War II.
One of those pilots, who now lives in Irvine, finally on Tuesday met two of the men he protected from German warplanes.
Retired Lt. Colonel Bob Friend was invited to speak at Valencia Terrace senior community in Corona. The invitation came from two fellow WWII veterans who have a special connection to the Tuskegee Airmen.
During the war, the airmen were often chosen to fly escort for B-17 and B-24 bombers.
Retired Staff Sgt. Jim Pfeiffer was a bombardier who was escorted by Friend on certain missions.
During briefings, fellow service members always hoped the Tuskegee Airmen, also known as the Redtails, would be their escorts, Pfeiffer said.
"And they said, ‘Your escort today is going to be…’ – everyone got quiet – ‘…the red tails,’ and we would go, oh good," Pfeiffer said.
Retired tech Sgt. Russell Sandhoefner, a radio man on a B-24 bomber, said the Redtails quickly became known as an elite group of fighter pilots.
"We had such high regards for the Tuskegee pilots," Sandhoefner told NBC4. "They did such a great job; they saved our necks so many times."
In the beginning, it was a tough journey to get the Redtails airborne.
The military was reluctant to allow African Americans to fly in combat because of racial motivations.
Friend said once in the air, he and his fellow pilots proved that skin color didn't mean anything.
"We were fighter airplanes, they were bomber airplanes," Friend said. "We have a job to do, a common job."
Friend on Tuesday shared his experience with a crowd at Valencia Terrace alongside fellow Tuskegee pilot John Riley, who now lives in Murrieta.