WASHINGTON (AP) — Charles McGee, the Tuskegee airman who flew 409 fighter sorties in three wars and then helped draw 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.
Following the U.S. entry into World War II, McGee left the University of Illinois to join an experimental program for black soldiers seeking pilot training after the Army Air Corps was forced to admit African Americans. According to his biography on the National Aviation Hall of Fame website, in October 1942 he was sent to Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama for flight training.
“You could say that one of the things we fought for was equality,” he told The Associated Press in a 1995 interview. “Equality of opportunity. We knew we had the same skills or better.”
McGee graduated from flying school in June 1943 and joined the all-black 332nd Fighter Group, known as the Red Tails, in early 1944. He made 136 sorties, escorting bombers over Europe.
Over 900 trained at Tuskegee from 1940 to 1946. About 450 people were sent abroad and 150 died in training or in combat.
In recent years, Tuskegee airmen have been the subject of books, films, and documentaries that highlight their courage in the air and the doubts they faced on the ground because of their race. In 2007, the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’s highest civilian award, was presented in recognition of their “unique military record of inspiring revolutionary reform in the military.”
McGee remained in the Army Air Corps, later in the US Air Force, and served for 30 years. It flew low-altitude bombing and strafing missions during the Korean War and returned to combat again during the Vietnam War. The National Aviation Hall of Fame claims that his 409 fighter sorties in three wars remain a record.
He retired as a colonel in the Air Force in 1973, then graduated in business administration and worked as an executive. He was given the honorary rank of brigadier general with one star when he was 100 years old. Another event marked his centenary: he flew in a private jet between Frederick, Maryland, and Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
In 2020, McGee drew applause from members of Congress when he was introduced by President Donald Trump during his address to Congress.
In addition to encouraging young men and women to pursue careers in aviation, McGee was a source of information on Tuskegee airmen and offered a unique look at the race relations of the era through the non-profit airmen’s education organization.
“During 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 view was that blacks had neither the intelligence nor the courage to be military pilots. One general even wrote: “The Negro does not have the necessary reflexes to become a first-class fighter pilot.” The Tuskegee Airmen certainly proved people like him wrong.”
Charles Edward McGee was born December 7, 1919 in Cleveland to a priest who also worked as a teacher, social worker, and 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 a great-great-grandchild. His wife, who is over 50 years old, Frances, died in 1994.
A family statement describes McGee as “a living legend known for his kind-hearted and humble nature, who sees the positive in every turn.”
In Sunday tweets honoring McGee, both 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 an essay at the Smithsonian, McGee wrote that he was often asked why Tuskegee airmen were so successful in combat.
“I would say that it happened because of our courage and perseverance,” he wrote. “As children, we dreamed of becoming pilots, but we were told that this was impossible. Through faith and determination, we have overcome enormous obstacles. This is a lesson that all young people should hear.”
He added: “I am most proud of my work as a Tuskegee Airman who helped break down racial barriers and defeat the Nazis.”
Associated Press contributor Daisy Nguyen contributed to this report.