This past weekend, the nation lost one more of its Greatest Generation heroes. He was one of the last of the Tuskegee Airmen combat pilots, Brig. Gen. Charles McGee. To quote the famous poem “High Flight,” Brig. Gen. McGee has “slipped the surly bonds of Earth [to] dance the skies on laughter-silvered wings” at the noble age of 102.
Charles McGee was born in Cleveland on December 7, 1919. His father, a minister, teacher, and social worker, as well as a military chaplain, was a great influence in his life. He graduated from high school in Chicago, IL, and was attending the University of Illinois when WWII broke out. He left the university to join the Army Air Corps and was sent to the new program for Black pilots and crews at Tuskegee, Alabama, to be trained as a pilot. Because of the racial climate of the time, these men understood, as McGee explained to an AP reporter in 1995, “You could say that one of the things we were fighting for was equality.”
McGee was one of over 900 men who were trained at Tuskegee between 1940 and 1946. 450 of those men would be deployed to Europe during WWII, and 150 of them would lose their lives in either training accidents or in combat during the war. McGee graduated from the Tuskegee program in June of 1943, and in 1944 joined the all-Black 332nd Fighter Group, known also as the “Red Tails.” He would fly 136 combat missions, escorting allied bombers during his time in WWII.
McGee would remain in the Army Air Corps, which later became the United States Air Force, for 30 years. He retired from the Air Force in 1973 at the rank of Colonel. During those 30 years, he would also see combat in Korea, flying low-level bombing missions. He would again see combat flying missions in Vietnam. He would end his career with 409 combat missions in his flight logs. His 409 missions over three wars remain a record to this day.
After retiring from the Air Force, McGee would get a degree in business administration and have a second career as a business executive. In 2019, when he turned 100 years of age, he was accorded an honorary commission as a Brigadier General. Back in 2007, he, along with the remaining Tuskegee Airmen, received the Congressional Gold Medal in honor of their service to the nation during WWII.
A few years back, McGee was interviewed for a Smithsonian Institute essay. In response to the question, “Why were the Tuskegee Airmen so successful?” he responded: “I would say it was because of our courage and perseverance. We dreamed of being pilots as boys but were told it was not possible. Through faith and determination, we overcame enormous obstacles. This is a lesson that all young people need to hear.”
When asked what he thought was his greatest accomplishment over his long life, he said, “I am most proud of my work as a Tuskegee Airman that helped bring down racial barriers and defeat the Nazis.”
The Veterans Site sends its condolences to the family of Brig. Gen. Charles McGee. We honor his life, his heroic military service, and what he did to help the military and the nation confront the terrible issue and consequences of racism. To Brig. Gen. Charles McGee, I quote from the poem “High Flight” once again, “Sunward [you] have climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds,–and done a hundred things you have not dreamed of–wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence.” You have Flown High! Fought! and Won! Rest in Peace, good soul.Whizzco