Brigadier General Charles Edward McGee, one of the last living Tuskegee Airmen, turns 101-year-old, where he celebrated in Bethesda Maryland, waving the American flag as well-wishers drove by while some celebrated, cheering from a distance. The event even had a surprise fly-over of a P-51 aircraft, the same plane he flew in the war.
A decorated veteran and Airforce fighter pilot in World War II, 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 number, it was an opportunity to join the Airforce that came up 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,” he said.
“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 an interview.
“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. “Once we were together, we were able to override those attitudes.”
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.
At 101, McGee, holds many prestigious functional and honorary positions around the field of aviation. In 1978, at the age of 58, he completed the college degree at Columbia College over thirty years after his initial enrolment at the University of Illinois. Though interrupted by World War II, attaining a college degree had been a lifelong goal.
McGee served as the Director of the Kansas City airport and as a member of the Aviation Advisory Commission. For over 30 years, he has been an ambassador of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., giving numerous public addresses and has received accolades including the National Aeronautic Association’s “Elder Statesman of Aviation.” McGee served as National President of the Association from 1983 to 1985, and is currently serving as its president.
“I’ve been blessed,” McGee said.
“My wife and I have three children. I currently have 10 grandchildren, fourteen great grandchildren and one great, great granddaughter.
To cap off the event, the attendees sang Happy Birthday and a service dog was named “Charles” in McGee’s honor.