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Obituary

Robert Williams; Flier Helped Tell Story of Tuskegee Airmen

September 11, 1997|BURT A. FOLKART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Robert W. Williams, the persistent patriarch of the Tuskegee Airmen, who spent 43 years bringing the significance of that all-black flight squadron to the public's attention, has died.

Williams was 75 when he died Monday at his Pasadena home, his daughter, Robin Wood, said Wednesday.

Williams, a decorated pilot with the Alabama-based group in World War II, labored for more than four decades trying to persuade film and TV producers to record his story of the small group of black men who served their country despite entrenched racial discrimination.

Finally, in 1995, HBO produced a film that Times television critic Howard Rosenberg called "the latest in a string of historical pearls."

It starred Laurence Fishburne, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Andre Braugher. Fishburne played Hannibal Lee, a character loosely based on Williams.

It earned three Emmy Awards, a Peabody, a Cable Ace Award and two NAACP Image Awards.

The film detailed how the "Fighting 99th"--the first squadron of black combat fighter pilots and the vanguard of nearly 1,000 black fliers--overcame racism for the right to serve their country, and emerged from the war wreathed with honor but with little public acclaim.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 12, 1997 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Williams obituary--The photo of Robert W. Williams, patriarch of the Tuskegee Airmen, that appeared in Thursday's editions was taken by D. Stevens/HBO.

The Pentagon did not allow black men to serve as fliers until 1943, and only then because the Allies were suffering huge losses against Nazi Germany.

About 450 Tuskegee airmen--so named named because they trained in a segregated facility in Tuskegee, Ala.--fought over North Africa, Sicily and Europe. They destroyed 260 enemy planes, damaged 148 others and sank a Nazi destroyer. No U.S. bomber was shot down while flying under the protection of the fighter group.

Williams, a member of the 100th Squadron, part of the 332nd Fighter Group that also included the 99th Squadron, flew missions over Italy, Germany and Czechoslovakia, according to his friend and fellow fighter pilot, Oliver Goodall.

Williams received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Presidential Distinguished Unit Award.

Born in Ottumwa, Iowa, Williams was also an actor and president of True Image Productions. He was a regular on TV's "The Phil Silvers Show."

Before retiring in 1984, he also was a marketing and communications specialist with the Norton Simon Co. and Hunt-Wesson Foods.

Williams is survived by his wife of 45 years, Joan; three children; four grandchildren;and a brother, John.

Memorial services are scheduled for 3 p.m. Friday at Pasadena's All Saints Episcopal Church.

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