Brig. Gen. Charles E. McGee, the eldest of the surviving Tuskegee Airmen, passed away on January 16, 2022. His life of dedicated service included flying combat aircraft in three major wars—a feat that was unthinkable before his career began, when the US military banned African Americans from combat flying roles.
Born in Chicago in 1919, McGee spent his formative years as an Eagle Scout and worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps before studying engineering at the University of Illinois, where he also participated in the ROTC program. On his 22nd birthday, Japanese aircraft bombed Pearl Harbor, and the next day American officially entered World War II. After hearing of the US Army Air Corps’ new program to allow African Americans to train as combat pilots, McGee enlisted. Before leaving for training, McGee married his partner, Frances Nelson. Two days after their ceremony, McGee received his orders and became an aviation cadet.
McGee had experienced discrimination where he grew up in the northern United States, but noted that in Alabama, where Tuskegee Air Field was located, the racism was much more blatant. “Back in those days, the city of Tuskegee was off limits, and the sheriff wasn’t a friend. You didn’t buy gas or walk down the street in certain areas,” McGee said. But flying lifted his spirits. Even his early training rides sometimes became spiritual experiences. “Flying up to 45,000 feet to watch the sun set and stars come out,” he said. “It makes you realize we human beings are just one small aspect in a mighty grand universe.”
After earning his wings and 2nd Lieutenant’s commission in June 1943, McGee joined the 302nd Fighter Squadron, part of the racially segregated 332nd Fighter Group, one of the units of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. Stationed in Italy, McGee flew P-39 Airacobras, P-47 Thunderbolts, and P-51 Mustangs on attack missions and bomber escorts. On August 24, 1944, McGee was escorting a group of B-24 Liberator bombers over Czechoslovakia while flying his P-51, named Kitten, partially after his nickname for his wife and partially as a reference to his crew chief, who “kept that engine purring like a kitten.” A group of German fighters pounced on the bombers, and McGee engaged, chasing a Fw 190 into a dive before shooting it down.
McGee ended his combat time in World War II after 136 missions, and then became an instructor for the 477th Bombardment Group (Medium), a group of African Americans training to become B-25 Mitchell crews.
Despite his decorated service, McGee faced harsh discrimination upon returning home. “In Europe, I was Charles McGee,” he said. “When you came down the gangplank in America, it’s, ‘Oh, you’re black.’ It was blacks this way, whites that way.” Even when serving in the United States, McGee was forced to leave his family behind because African Americans were not allowed to buy or rent homes in the areas around the bases to which he was assigned.
When the Korean War began in 1950, McGee had recently become the base operations officer at Clark Field in the Philippines. He quickly joined the 67th Fighter Bomber Squadron and flew his favorite aircraft, the P-51 (now redesignated F-51) Mustang on 100 combat missions. After Korea, McGee held a number of command positions around the US Air Force, including commanding the 44th Fighter Bomber Squadron, flying F-80 Shooting Stars.
By 1967, with the Vietnam War increasing in intensity, the Air Force assigned McGee to command the 16th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in South Vietnam. Flying RF-4 Phantom II jet fighters on dangerous photo reconnaissance missions, McGee completed 172 combat missions and earned his first Legion of Merit.
After returning to several other leadership positions in the Air Force, McGee retired from service as a Colonel in 1973. With a total of 409 combat missions across three wars, he had earned the Legion of Merit twice, earned three Distinguished Flying Crosses, and was awarded a Bronze Star, among many other awards. After retirement, he went back to college to earn a degree and continued to serve in a variety of leadership positions, including the Boy Scouts, while helping to create and promote the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. He also made time to visit us at the National Air and Space Museum, signing books, speaking at family day programs, and participating in lectures. His willingness to share his story provided our visitors with a first-hand account of history, and many walked away moved by the change to hear from and speak to McGee.
In 2020, McGee received a promotion to Brigadier General. Then-Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General David Goldfein, noted the importance of recognizing McGee’s legacy: “Charles McGee is a genuine American hero whose courage in combat helped save a nation, and whose legacy is felt to this day across the entire US Air Force.”
Looking back, McGee and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen were a powerful force for change, helping to increase the effectiveness of the US military through a more equitable use of personnel—but McGee did not pursue his career out of a sense of advocacy. “It was more about wanting to do our best and accomplish the mission we were assigned,” he said. “We just wanted to be part of what the country was all about at the time. We could’ve said, ‘They don’t like us. They don’t want us’ and not served our country. We chose to serve, and it allowed our Air Force to see what we could accomplish, and ... bring about an important change in the country.”