The Peace Page, celebrating Black History Month
“It’s not possible,” he was told.
That was the answer he received, when he said he wanted to become a pilot.
Charles E. McGee was born in in Cleveland, Ohio, on December 7, 1919. His mother died after the birth of his sister. His father was a teacher, a social worker, and a minister.
He said he was used to folks telling him he couldn’t do something.
He could never become a pilot, they said, so he earned his pilot’s wings and became a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American military aviators in the US service corps.
They said he couldn’t fly – but, he became “the only known fighter pilot who flew more than 100 combat missions in each of the following wars: World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War,” according to Flying.
If you missed it, McGee was one of the four veterans, all 100 years old, who were honored at Super Bowl LIV this Sunday. McGee was the one who helped with the coin toss. It might have been his easiest mission.
“In a 30-year active service career, he achieved a three-war fighter mission total of 409 combat missions, one of the highest by any Air Force fighter pilot,” according to the Air Force Historical Research Agency.
He “flew 136 combat missions in World War II as part of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, attacking targets in Italy and supporting the rescue of 1,000 prisoners of war in Romania,” according to Stars and Stripes.
At the time McGee joined the Tuskegee Airmen, many believed “that black men were inferior to white men, and lacked the ability to perform certain tasks, such as flying a fighter effectively in combat,” according to Dr. Daniel L. Haulman of the Air Force Historical Research Agency.
“The idea of an all African American flight squadron was radical and offensive to many,” McGee wrote 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.’“
“During World War I, there were no black pilots in the American military,” wrote Haulman.
One of the few black combat pilots during World War I was Eugene Bullard, featured in previous Peace Page stories, and he had to go to France to be able to fly.
“In October, 1925, the War College of the U.S. Army issued a memorandum entitled, ‘The Use of Negro Manpower in War,” which reflected the racial prejudice of white army leaders of the time,” wrote Haulman. “It claimed that Negroes were inferior to whites and encouraged continued segregation within the Army. It recommended that blacks be allowed to do certain menial tasks, but not others that would require more intelligence.”
McGee and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen proved the naysayers all wrong, and they “broke down racial barriers as they helped defeat the German Luftwaffe.”
“The Tuskegee Airmen, along with millions of other Americans, fought heroically to defeat Hitler’s Germany,” according to the Smithsonian.
“In over 15,000 combat missions, 66 Tuskegee Airmen died in combat; 32 became POWs. They also earned hundreds of awards including 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 8 Purple Hearts, and 14 Bronze Stars,” according to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
“Very few bombers were lost on our watch, and 251 enemy aircraft were shot down,” according to McGee.
“The extraordinary success of the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II led to the integration of the Armed Forces by Harry Truman in 1948,” according to the Smithsonian.
“The “Red Tails” were so successful, in fact, that many refused to believe we were African American,” McGee said.
“But the Airmen really fought two wars – one against the Nazis overseas, the other against segregation in the Armed Services as well as in everyday life,” said McGee. “We were often denied basic privileges given to other officers, such as the right to go to an Officer’s Club.”
“The Tuskegee Airmen [also] did not return to a hero’s welcome.”
The Washington Post reported that even “his wife and eldest daughter [couldn’t] join him at an air base in Kansas after he returned home – even after his wartime heroics – because housing remained segregated.”
One pilot Joe Gomer said, “We didn’t come back as combat veterans, we came back as second-class citizens. German POWs were treated better.”
But, “our record of bravery in adverse conditions played a major role in ending segregation and bringing about social change in America,” wrote McGee. “I was proud [that we] helped bring down racial barriers and defeat the Nazis.”
McGee has been recognized with the Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf Clusters, Legion of Merit with one Oak Leaf Cluster, Bronze Star, Air Medal with 25 Oak Leaf Clusters, Army Commendation Medal, Presidential Unit Citation, Korean Presidential Unit Citation, Hellenic Republic World War II Commemorative Medal along with related campaign and service ribbons.
In 1972, McGee “became the first black commander of a stateside Air Force Wing as the commander of the Richard-Gebaur Air Reserve Base in Missouri,” according to Flying.
He, along with other surviving and deceased Tuskegee Airmen. also received in 2007 the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian award.
In 2011, he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio.
In 2018, on his 99th birthday, McGee, with former Air Force pilot Glenn Gonzales, was able to take the controls of an airplane in flight for the first time in 37 years.
In December 2019, for his 100th birthday, McGee flew with a copilot in a Cirrus Vision Jet and a Cessna Citation M2. Also, in “December, he received an honorary promotion to Brigadier General,” according to CNN.
“It’s important for our young people to not only know where our country is going, but also where it’s been,” McGee wrote for Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. “And, in the case of the Tuskegee Airmen, their hope of being allowed to fly and fight for their country, their goal of training to be the best fighter pilots while overcoming unbelievable odds, and their example still ring true today.
“I am often asked why the Tuskegee Airmen were so successful in combat. 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.”
“Folks say, ‘You’re a hero.’ I don’t see it like that,” McGee said. “I just say life’s been a blessing.”
“We had folks tell us you can’t do something,” McGee said in an interview with WUSA9. “I think this kind of sweeps that away. Realize that you can.”
[Photo from American Veterans Center]