WASHINGTON (AP) — Charles McGee, a Tuskegee Airman who flew 409 fighter combat missions in three wars and later helped bring attention to black pilots who fought racism at home to fight for Freedom Abroad, died Sunday. He was 102 years old.
McGee died in his sleep at his home in Bethesda, Maryland, his son, Ron McGee, said.
After the United States entered World War II, McGee left the University of Illinois to join an experimental program for black soldiers seeking to train as pilots after the Army Air Corps was forced to admit African Americans. In October 1942, he was sent to Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama for flight training, according to his biography on the National Aviation Hall of Fame website.
“You could say that one of the things we fight for was equality,” he told The Associated Press in a 1995 interview. “Equal opportunity. We knew we had the same skills, or better.
McGee graduated from flight school in June 1943 and in early 1944 joined the all-black 332nd Fighter Group, known as the “Red Tails”. He flew 136 missions as the group accompanied bombers over Europe.
Over 900 men trained at Tuskegee from 1940 to 1946. About 450 were deployed overseas and 150 lost their lives in training or combat.
In recent years, Tuskegee Airmen have been the subject of books, films and documentaries highlighting their courage in the air and the doubts they faced on the ground because of their race. In 2007, a Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’s highest civilian honor, was awarded to recognize their “unique military journey that inspired groundbreaking reform in the Armed Forces”.
McGee remained in the Army Air Corps, later the US Air Force, and served for 30 years. It flew low-level bombing and strafing missions in the Korean War and returned to combat in the Vietnam War. The National Aviation Hall of Fame says its 409 air fighter combat missions in three wars remains a record.
He retired as a colonel in the Air Force in 1973, then earned a college degree in business administration and worked as a business executive. He received an honorary commission promoting him to the one-star rank of brigadier general at the age of 100. Another event marked his centennial: he flew a private jet between Frederick, Maryland, and Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
In 2020, McGee drew a standing ovation from members of Congress when he was introduced by President Donald Trump during his State of the Union address.
In addition to encouraging young men and women to pursue careers in aviation, McGee was a source of information about Tuskegee Airmen and offered a unique perspective on race relations of the day through the not-for-profit educational organization of airmen.
“At the time of the war, the idea of an all-African American flying squadron was radical and offensive to many,” McGee wrote in an essay for the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
“The prevailing opinion was that black people had neither the intelligence nor the courage to be military pilots. One general even wrote, “The nigger guy doesn’t have the right reflexes to make a first-rate fighter pilot.” The Tuskegee Airmen certainly proved men like him wrong.
Charles Edward McGee was born December 7, 1919, in Cleveland, the son of a minister who also worked as a teacher and social worker and was a military chaplain. He graduated from Chicago High School in 1938.
Survivors include daughters Charlene McGee Smith and Yvonne McGee, 10 grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild. His wife of over 50 years, Frances, died in 1994.
A family statement describes McGee as “a living legend known for his generous and humble nature, who saw positivity at every turn.”
In tweets honoring McGee on Sunday, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III called him an American hero.
“While I am saddened by his loss, I am also incredibly grateful for his sacrifice, his legacy and his character. Rest in peace, General,” Austin wrote.
In his Smithsonian essay, McGee wrote that he was often asked why the Tuskegee Airmen did so well in combat.
“I would say it is thanks to our courage and our perseverance,” he wrote. “We dreamed of being pilots when we were boys but were told it was not possible. Through faith and determination, we overcame huge obstacles. It is a lesson that all young people must hear.
He added, “I’m very proud of my work as a Tuskegee Airman who helped break down racial barriers and defeat the Nazis.”
Associated Press writer Daisy Nguyen contributed to this report.
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