Decorated Tuskegee Airman Brigadier Gen. Charles McGee has died at age 102. He passed away peacefully in his sleep Sunday morning, January 16, according to family spokesperson.
“He had his right hand over his heart and was smiling serenely,” his youngest daughter Yvonne McGee said in a family statement. “He was a wonderful human being … I feel proud and privileged to be called his son,” McGee’s son, Ron McGee, said. McGee was a resident of Bethesda, Maryland.
McGee was drafted into the armed forces in 1942 and became one of the first members of the Black military aviators in a squadron known as the Tuskegee Airmen. During a visit here at the Los Angeles Sentinel offices in 2020, McGee said “I just fell in love with flying, and was proud to have been given the opportunity to serve.”
“The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of men who, when given the opportunity, were able to dispel the biases, generalizations and racist ideals that said Blacks could not service this country in a technical capacity or in a war,” McGee explained during the interview at the Sentinel in 2020.
“The Army said we couldn’t maintain or fly aircraft. We should cook food, drive trucks, build roads, etc. We could serve our country that way because we were physically qualified but we were mentally and morally inferior to the White man.”
McGee was born in 1919 in Cleveland, Ohio. His mother died during the birth of his sister, while he was very young, and eventually, he and his siblings relocated with their father to Illinois. McGee had been attending the University of Illinois when World War II broke out. “My answer to people when they ask how I joined the Airforce is that I was trying to avoid the draft,” McGee laughingly recalled.
“Had my number come up, I would have been on the ground with a rifle.” Instead of his future relying on that number, there was an opportunity to join the Airforce instead. “Because I was in school, I learned about the aviation opportunity and applied. I passed the exams, and all I can say is after my first flight, I was hooked,” McGee said. During his more than 30-year career, McGee flew 409 combat missions in WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam, one of the highest number of missions in history.
Among his many honors were the Congressional Gold Medal and his induction into the National Aviation Hall of Fame. Being a part of the Tuskegee team, he said, has been a lifetime achievement. We were fighting for two victories: the victory over Hitler in Europe and the victory over racism at home,” McGee said. Those two were overshadowed by dogmatic segregation in America.
“We can’t say good things about segregation but we can because it brought us together in a way that lasted a lifetime,” he said. McGee said he could not articulate enough to today’s youth what it has meant to him to serve the country while doing something he loves. “For the youth,” he says “there are great opportunities in the field of aviation and aerospace. I would tell them, if you have the desire, go for it. I give it to them in 4 p’s: perceive, prepare, perform and persevere.”
In honor of his 101st birthday, a parade of people came out to his Bethesda home to pay tribute to the Tuskegee Airman, which included a military fly-over — a nod to his fighter pilot days. “I’m almost speechless,” he said. “It’s an honor and another of life’s blessings. “McGee battled racism and segregation during his military career that spanned three decades. His family and friends say he persevered and stayed focused on his mission.
In recent years, McGee played a vital role in educating students and adults on the historical significance of the Tuskegee airman and was a strong advocate in explaining the importance of education to young people through scholarships, educational assistance, and good first-hand advice. “Get an education, because you can’t take advantage of opportunity if you’re not at least initially prepared,” he said.
McGee is survived by his three children, several grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren.