fb-pixel Skip to main content

Famed Tuskegee Airman Charles McGee dies at 102

Charles McGee was awarded an honorary rank of general in 2019.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Charles E. McGee, one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen, the first all-Black unit of the World War II Army Air Forces, who as a fighter pilot flew a remarkable total of 409 combat missions in that conflict and in the Korean and Vietnam wars, died Sunday. He was 102.

His death was confirmed by the secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, who did not specify where he died.

“Today, we lost an American hero,” Austin said. “While I am saddened by his loss, I’m also incredibly grateful for his sacrifice, his legacy, and his character.”

Mr. McGee was accorded an honorary commission promoting him to the one-star rank of brigadier general under a congressional measure signed by President Trump on Dec. 20, 2019, 13 days after Mr. McGee’s 100th birthday.

Advertisement



And in a White House ceremony on Feb. 4, 2020, Trump officially pinned the star on Mr. McGee’s uniform. Later that evening he was cheered by a joint session of Congress at Trump’s State of the Union address.

Mr. McGee received a congratulatory send-off after visiting with 436 Aerial Port Squadron personnel at Dover Air Force Base to help celebrate his 100th birthday in Dover, Del., in 2019.David Tulis/Associated Press

A day later, at a Black History Month event honoring him at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration headquarters in Washington, Mr. McGee — who was then one of nine Tuskegee Airmen still living, NASA said — was asked again, perhaps for the ten-thousandth time, the question that everyone always posed:

What had it been like to be humiliated by racist white Americans in and around his base at Tuskegee, Ala., where he learned to fly, and then to defend his segregated nation with his life in World War II?

“Well fortunately,” he said with characteristic modesty, “I didn’t think about that, that much.” Classmates, he said, had told him which places “not to go to buy gas, and how to act.”

On Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States into World War II, Mr. McGee — who turned 22 that day — was a sophomore at the University of Illinois, studying engineering and drilling with the ROTC and the Pershing Rifles, a national military society. The son of an African Methodist Episcopal minister, he wrestled with the idea of quitting college.

Advertisement



Even before enlisting in the Army on Oct. 26, 1942, he had taken aptitude tests and filed an application to join an elite corps of African American recruits for pilot training. He was soon singled out and sent to Tuskegee Army Air Field, joining other college men with military interests. The base was near Booker T. Washington’s old Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). Its climate was ideal for year-around flying. It was also in the heart of the Jim Crow South.

Most of America, including the government and its military services, was racially segregated. But President Franklin D. Roosevelt had directed that a unit of Black servicemen should be trained as pilots and support personnel. While relatively secure from civilian harassment in their barracks, mess halls, and training exercises, the Tuskegee Airmen were still subjected to discrimination by white officers and noncommissioned officers on and off the base.

The trainees came from all over the country, nearly 14,000 wartime volunteers. Most became navigators, bombardiers, mechanics, control tower operators, and other support staff — all known today as Tuskegee Airmen. Fewer than 1,000 became fighter pilots. McGee was one of them, earning his wings and second lieutenant’s commission in June 1943.

Advertisement



The class went first to Selfridge Army Air Field in Michigan for combat training and was sent overseas in December. Mr. McGee was assigned to the 302nd Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group under Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr. (later a four-star general), and landed in Italy in February 1944. (Davis had been the first Black graduate of West Point in the 20th century and the son of the Army’s first Black general.)

In early June, the group moved to its new home, Ramitelli Air Field near the town of Campomarino on Italy’s Adriatic Coast. Its single runway had been built in late 1943 as Allied invasion forces secured Southern Italy. Farmhouses around the field served as barracks and operations headquarters, where pilots were briefed on flight plans and missions.

The primary mission of Mr. McGee’s group was to escort heavy bombers of the 15th Air Force — B-24 Liberators and B-17 Flying Fortresses — on scores of strategic bombing raids over Europe’s underbelly, crossing the Adriatic Sea and attacking targets in Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and Germany. A round-trip to distant targets often took more than six hours.

Flying Republic P-47 Thunderbolts at first, and later the North American P-51 Mustang, all with the distinctive red tails and trim that identified their unit, the Tuskegee Airmen intercepted and fought swarms of Luftwaffe defenders, mostly Focke-Wulf Fw 190s. (A 2012 feature film about the group was titled “Red Tails.”)

On Aug. 23, 1944, while escorting B-17s over Czechoslovakia, Mr. McGee, by then a captain, had peeled off to engage a Luftwaffe squadron and, after a fierce dogfight, shot down a Fw 190. On the forward fuselage of his P-51, his wife’s nickname, “Kitten,” had been inscribed.

Advertisement



When not escorting bombers, Mr. McGee’s group flew target-of-opportunity missions, bombing and strafing enemy airfields, rail yards, factories, and other installations. Of the 992 Black pilots trained at Tuskegee during the war, 355 were deployed overseas, 84 were killed in action, a dozen died on training and noncombat missions, and 32 were taken prisoner after being shot down.

The Tuskegee Airmen’s record of protecting bombers was excellent, losing only 27 bombers on seven of its 179 escort missions, compared to an average of 46 bomber losses among all other 15th Air Force P-51 escort groups. The Tuskegee Airmen also destroyed 112 enemy aircraft in the air and 150 on the ground, as well as 600 rail cars, 350 trucks, and other vehicles, and 40 boats and barges.

Mr. McGee flew more than 130 combat missions in World War II and returned to the United States in December 1944 to become an instructor for another unit of Tuskegee Airmen, the 477th Bomb Group, flying B-25 Mitchell bombers out of stateside bases. That group never got into the war. Mr. McGee served at Tuskegee Field until 1946, when the base was closed.

He decided to remain in the Air Force. President Truman officially ended segregation in the armed forces in 1948. The order hardly ended discrimination in the services, but the captain loved flying and saw his best opportunities for the future as a career officer in the jet age.

Advertisement



At Lockbourne Air Field in Ohio, he became an operations and training officer, flying Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star and Northrop F-89 Scorpion jet fighters. While the F-80s saw extensive combat in the Korean War, Mr. McGee flew all 100 of his Korean War combat missions in P-51s. He was promoted to major.

As a lieutenant colonel in the Vietnam War, he flew 172 combat missions in McDonnell RF-4 photoreconnaissance aircraft and commanded the 16th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron based at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, near Saigon.

After other postings in the United States, Italy, and Germany, he was promoted to full colonel and retired on Jan. 31, 1973, ending his career with 6,308 flying hours and 409 combat missions, among the most in service history. That three-war total was exceeded only by Colonel Harold Snow, who flew 666 missions in those wars, and Colonel Ralph Parr Jr., who flew 641, according to Air Force records. Snow died in 2016 at 93, and Parr died in 2012 at 88.

Mr. McGee, who held many command posts through the years, received the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, the French Legion of Honor, and the Bronze Star, among other decorations.

A veteran of three wars, Mr. McGee flew a Cirrus SF50 Vision Jet with assistance from pilot Boni Caldeira during a celebratory flight on the day before his 100th birthday in 2019.David Tulis/Associated Press

Charles Edward McGee was born in Cleveland on Dec. 7, 1919, 22 years to the day before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, plunging America into World War II. He was the second of three children of Lewis Sr. and Ruth (Lewis) McGee.

Charles’s mother died when he was 17 months old, having developed an infection soon after giving birth to her third child. After her death, Charles and his siblings moved often with their father, a teacher, social worker and minister in the AME Church. The family lived in Ohio, Florida, West Virginia, Iowa, and Illinois.

Charles was a Boy Scout, Eagle Scout, and a top student at DuSable High School in Chicago, graduating in 1938. Saving for college, he worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps., then entered the University of Illinois.

He married Frances Nelson in 1942, the same year he left college to join the Tuskegee Airmen. They had three children: Ronald, Yvonne, and Charlene, who survive him, along with many grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren. His wife died in 1994.

After retiring from military service, Mr. McGee in 1978 completed the studies he had interrupted in 1942 and earned a degree in business administration from Columbia College in Columbia, Mo. He held corporate executive positions in real estate and purchasing. He was also director of the Kansas City (Mo.) Downtown Airport.

Mr. McGee, who lived in Bethesda, Maryland, was a founder and past president of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., a nonprofit support group, and lectured widely about the flyers and their deeds.

In 2007, he and all of the Tuskegee Airmen received the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor. He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2011.

A biography of Mr. McGee, “Tuskegee Airman,” by his daughter, Charlene E. McGee Smith, was published in 1999. “We shattered all the myths,” he recalled in the book. “A lot of what we fought for was an opportunity to overcome having someone look at you and, because of your color, close a door on you.”