The U.S. Postal Service this week released a stamp in honor of C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson, a black aviation pioneer who taught hundreds of Tuskegee Airmen as chief flight instructor at the historic Tuskegee Institute.
President Obama this week also awarded the Medal of Honor to 24 veterans, most of whom had been initially passed over because they are Hispanic, Jewish or African American. The medal is the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress.
McGee, who flew a record 409 combat missions while serving in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, received the honor in 2007, along with other Tuskegee Airmen. The medal is on display at his home in Bethesda, along with other accolades from his 30-year Air Force career.
At 94, McGee is part of a shrinking group of Tuskegee Airmen, which in addition to pilots included navigators, bombardiers, maintenance, medical and other support personnel.
McGee, who says he’s isn’t quite ready for “the rocking chair,” still does quite a bit of public speaking about the country’s first black military pilots. In the following interview, he discussed Anderson’s legacy and his own experiences as one of the Tuskegee Airmen. (This transcript has been edited.)
What do you remember about C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson, chief flight instructor at the the Tuskegee Institute, where you trained as a pilot?
He was head of all of the instructors. Of course, we saw him on occasion, and occasionally he talked to us, too. That was his nickname, Chief. That’s all we ever called him was Chief. The chief was…a very endearing person. I never saw him without a smile on his face. And he was ready to talk aviation to anybody, any age, anytime. And of course in later years, at a couple of our airmen conventions, I’d see him.
What does the stamp mean to you?
Well, It’s important in our history. Stamps kind of have a way of telling a little story of their own. We get [stamps] for all kinds of causes, not only for holidays, so it’s good to recognize people in our history, as well. He was someone who definitely deserves to be recognized.
Did you go to any events around the release of the stamp?
Well, I speak at different places … It’s [about] sharing the story of what the experiences and accomplishments have meant to our country and the area of providing equal access and equal opportunity.
I’m not quite ready for — I try to stay out of the rocking chair. It’s coming, but I’ll hold it off as long as I can. But my motto has really kind of been: Do while you can because you’re not promised tomorrow. So I give thanks for each day.
How did you get into aviation?
Well, I wasn’t avoiding the draft, or maybe I was (laughs). But I wasn’t called up because I was in college at the University of Illinois and learned about the program because the Army’s policy, of course, was that they didn’t think we could fly and that was why we’d been denied the opportunity. They’d even said, “Well we can’t use black pilots because we don’t have any black mechanics.” So the first airmen, if you will, now that we call ourselves Tuskegee Airmen, were training as mechanics at Chanute Field, [near] Rantoul, Ill., and that’s just a few miles up the road from where I was in school. That’s how I heard about the program. And my ROTC instructor [suggested I apply to] the pilot program. And I did. I went and passed the exams and sat back and waited. In fact, that was in April of ’42, and I didn’t get called, though, until October of ’42.
It’s been reported that you weren’t really familiar with planes at that time.
[I’d] never been around one. I’m not one of those that heard a plane or saw one and said ‘I want to do that someday’ at all. But well, I told folks after my first flight, I knew I made the right decision. I fell in love with flying, and of course later years when I thought about getting out of the service and going to airlines, they weren’t ready [for black pilots], so I stayed in the military. But I had wonderful assignments and opportunities all through my career, so there are no regrets.
It just happens that I serviced both WWII, Korea and Vietnam, but I just give thanks that I made it through and am still here to talk about it and share the experiences.
President Truman ordered the military to integrate in 1948. What role did Tuskegee play in changing racial attitudes?
It provided the opportunity for the Air Force to change their mind and determine to do away with segregation. Well, they said, “We need to use people based on their training and experience, not the color of their skin, and we’re not getting enough money to continue to maintain a segregated base and meet our requirements.”
So, the Air Force really led the country in proceeding in that direction. Of course, I’d say it’s a step in civil rights, but it took the civil rights action of the ’60s to change hotels and restaurants and meeting places and that type of thing.
But had we not been successful both in not only learning to fly, but performing well in combat, it’s hard to say what could have taken place because of the attitudes that still considered minorities second-class citizens.
So we’ve come a ways, and I guess, in some sense, some of those attitudes are still out there. We’re still fighting. In fact, I even say back then, of course, they discriminated against women, as well. I really say they treated us better than they did the WASP pilots [Women Airforce Service Pilots] because they used them for two years, sent them home, and they had to pay their own way home. They weren’t officially recognized until I think it was 1972, something like that.
At least we were — even though they didn’t like us — we were commissioned as we got our wings, and quite a number of the Airmen made it a career. Of course, many put in their service, got out and did all kinds of things around the country.
You were born in Cleveland?
Cleveland, Ohio. Definitely, I’m a Buckeye, but we left that area when I was in third grade. My key growing up was Illinois and Iowa. My dad was a minister. He moved about. We got settled, my brother, sister and I, with the family west of Chicago, so we were pretty settled, which was good for schooling because we were in an area that there weren’t enough blacks to have a separate school. We were out on the Fox River, west of Chicago. Schooling was good, but my senior year, well, my dad moved to Iowa, and I had 2 1/2 good high school years in Iowa, and then he came back to Chicago. Chicago schools were not that good. I didn’t do anything for several weeks while I was playing catch-up on my senior year. And then I went down to University of Illinois — of course, that was a state school. I worked a year to get enough money to go to school.
And then you left there after two years to go to Tuskegee?
I was not through my second year when I got called up, so the focus was putting in service, and I didn’t get to finish up college studies until many years later. Well, in the service I attended a number of service schools and did study when I could at university where there were locations where I could continue adding [credits]. And then later years I finally put it all together and got a degree.
That was Columbia College?
Yes, they had a branch in Kansas City, Mo., where I had retired and was living and working. Service was interesting as we went along. In the early years after the Air Force integration we were given assignments overseas that they wouldn’t give us here at home. So I was very fortunate to get some good assignments out of that.
They closed Lockbourne in July of 49. My final assignment was commander of Richards-Gebaur, the base south of Kansas City, in ’72. That was the first assignment at that level in the states [for African American members of the military] after the closing of Lockbourne, but other similar assignments followed very rapidly from ’72 on.
Shortly after I got that assignment, one of the airmen got a similar assignment in training command, wing and base type of thing. But then mandatory retirement was right around the corner. I would have needed another promotion to stay in longer, but that wasn’t to be.
When did you retire from the Air Force? What did you do after?
Maybe 1978, something like that. I got a degree in business administration, although I had started out in engineering. But at the time putting everything together I ended up getting a degree, and I was working in, well I guess you’d call it middle management-type of jobs after I got out of the service there in Kansas City, Mo. All to the good.
In fact, my last job was managing Kansas City’s downtown airport. Of course, it was aviation-related. We had a nice small crew, so we had a good time. That’s what I tell youngsters, too — that… they try to find out what their talents are … I always tell them it’s pretty tough to go to work every day [and] not like what you’re doing. Hopefully, you find something that you enjoy. That’s what flying did for me.
In 2011, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History announced it had acquired the “Spirit of Tuskegee” (a World War II-era biplane used to train Tuskegee Airmen). Have you been involved with any plans for the museum, which is scheduled to open next year?
Yes. I … gave a couple things they were interested in, just from my experience. How it’s [the plane] going to fit in, I don’t know down there, but they’re doing that planning now. …If they’d finished the building they’d have to tear down the wall to put it in. So they fortunately worked that out to get in before the wall went up. But, yes, I’d say providing support for that I think is very important.
What did you donate?
Things that I used during a period of training. I’m not sure how it’s all going to go together in there, but I still had boots that I flew with in Korea. They were looking at certain time frames. And of course, because I had experience in WWII, Korea and Vietnam, they asked if I had anything.
You hold the record for the highest three-war total of combat missions, right?
Oh, it turned out — at least the chief of staff of the Air Force said so — for combat missions, fighter combat, which is key, fighter combat missions. WWII, Korea and Vietnam, I ended up with 409 missions, 1,151 combat hours, and they say that’s an Air Force record for those three engagements.
But again, that’s something that, not Korea and Vietnam, but in WWII, usually they were pulling fighter pilots out of combat after 50 missions, bomber pilots it was 25 missions. That didn’t apply to [African Americans]. We had to keep on until a replacement came in.
It’s interesting in the history of blacks in aviation, of course, Chief Anderson was a self-taught pilot, and his interest began in ’32. And that was the other thing — until they finally included black colleges in the Civilian Pilot Training program, there were over 100 black pilots around the country that had gotten their self-training and so on, in a few cases with some support, but very limited. And they became instructors when they finally included black colleges in the Civilian Pilot Training program because initially they didn’t. And so that’s how primarily those blacks had got into aviation in the ’30s. They were the backbone of the instructors in the CPT, when they finally included the black, I think six of the black colleges, Howard University here being one of them. Of course, Tuskegee Institute.
Chief was self-taught, he probably had more flying hours than anybody over those years. The story is he wanted to fly, but they wouldn’t do anything. He’d go out to the airport, so he finally got some support and bought an airplane. And he said he started it up, got familiar with the sound of the engine, then he did some taxing, finally out on the runway. And finally one day did the taxing, but went on into the air (laughs) and had been flying ever since.
What was your experience like being in the south, in Tuskegee?
Not that pleasant. Fortunately, we had classmates, folks familiar with the South that kept us out of trouble, told us where we could be on the few occasions when we went into town or up to Atlanta. That kept us out of getting into trouble. Of course going on the train, going south, I had my first experience crossing the Mason-Dixon line and having to change seats on the train to go to the unwanted seats .
You’ve had a number of accolades. You were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007. What was that experience like?
Yes, Congress passed that in 2006. In 2007, we were one of the first large groups to get the award. They had first wanted to just give the award to the pilots and those of us who were involved in or contacted. We said, “No, if you’re going to give the award, it’s got to go to everybody who participated.”
In 2007, we received the salute from President Bush saying, as they say, “For those we didn’t get and should have received during our service.” But, yes, that was certainly a very high moment. And because of my combat record I was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton. That’s certainly a highlight. I had been recognized as an Elder Statesmen in Aviation earlier but to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame is to join quite a list of outstanding people. I don’t consider what I did so outstanding — it might be a record, but it still was a moving recognition.
Your plane was nicknamed Kitten?
Yes, Kitten. My wife’s nickname was “Kitten,” but I also said that my crew chief [refers to a picture nearby] kept that engine purring like a kitten, so I was happy to have that nickname.
Fortunately, we were able to get together before he passed. He did a great job. I’d tell some reporters, “You guys always like to come talk to pilots.” I said, “You need to come talk to these crew chiefs sometimes because they’re the ones that make it possible for us to do what we do.” They were very dedicated.
Since we were all together from 1941 to 1949, our marriages, first children, performing combat, performing training and all here at home, we developed life-long friendships.
We’ve had annual conventions since 1972 and still getting together, but like I said, getting calls like I had there about the funeral of another airmen. [He received the call during the interview.] Our numbers are dwindling rather rapidly these days, but that’s expected. At least, I don’t know anybody who can show a way to avoid it.”
You served as a consultant on the 2012 film, “Red Tails.” What did you think of the film? (McGee clarified that he had consulted on earlier versions of the film’s script).
As war movies go, I think it’s a good one. You just have to realize it’s not a documentary. When you look at it from a historical point of view, there are inaccuracies — they call it taking license. [George] Lucas also did [the documentary] “Double Victory,”and so I tell folks, look at “Double Victory,” then look at [“Red Tails”] and you can enjoy it and realize where they’ve taken license with it.