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Charles McGee, a Tuskegee Airman and decorated veteran of three wars died on Sunday at the age of 102. McGee was one of the first Black pilots in the United States Military. He first began his career in World War II flying with the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-Black military pilot group at a time of segregation in the military. McGee flew 409 fighter combat missions over three wars and helped bring attention to Black pilots who battled racism at home to fight for freedom abroad.
McGee left the University of Illinois after the U.S. entry into World War II to join an experimental program for Black soldiers looking to train as pilots after the Army Air Corps was forced to admit African Americans. According to McGee’s biography on the National Aviation Hall of Fame Website, in October 1942 he was sent to the Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama for flight training.
After graduating from flight school in June 1943, McGee joined the all-Black 332nd Fighter Group in 1944, known as the “Red Tails.” There he flew 136 missions as the group accompanied bombers over Europe.
“You could say that one of the things we were fighting for was equality. Equality of opportunity. We knew we had the same skills, or better,” McGee told The Associated Press in a 1995 interview.
McGee flew low-level bombing and strafing missions during the Korean War and revisited combat during the Vietnam War. He remained in the Army Air Corps and later joined the U.S. Air Force, where he served for 30 years. He retired as a colonel in the Air Force in 1973 and earned a college degree in business administration, later working as a business executive.
The Tuskegee Airmen have been a popular subject in books, movies, and documentaries in recent years. Their courage in the air and the doubts they faced on the ground because of their race have been the highlight of these stories. A Congressional Gold Medal was issued in 2007 to recognize their “unique military record that inspired revolutionary reform in the Armed Forces.”
McGee wrote in an essay for the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, “The prevailing opinion was that blacks did not possess the intelligence or courage to be military pilots. One general even wrote ‘The Negro type has not the proper reflexes to make a first-rate fighter pilot.’ The Tuskegee Airmen certainly proved men like him wrong.”