Tuskegee Airman recalls his career and an aviation pioneer honored in a new stamp


Col. Charles E. McGee received a Medal of Honor for his 30-year Air Force career. (Michel duCille/The Washington Post)

The U.S. Postal Service has 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.

“He was someone who definitely deserves to be recognized,” said Col. Charles E. McGee, a Tuskegee Airman. “Stamps kind of have a way of telling a little story on their own.”

Anderson’s stamp was released March 13. And this week President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to
24 veterans, most of whom were Hispanic, Jewish or African American. Most had been initially passed over because of bias.

McGee received his big honor in 2007. In what many viewed as a long-overdue action, he and other Tuskegee Airmen received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress. A replica of the medal is on display at his home in Bethesda, along with other accolades from his 30-year Air Force career. He flew a record 409 combat missions while serving in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

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. (At one point during this interview, McGee paused to take a call about funeral arrangements for a fellow Airman.) There’s no official record of the number of living pilots who trained at Tuskegee, said Sandra J. Campbell, national public relations officer for Tuskegee Airmen Inc., a nonprofit group set up to preserve the group’s legacy.

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 interview, he discussed Anderson’s legacy and his own experiences as one of the Tuskegee Airmen.

The interview has been edited.

What do you remember about C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson?

He was the “Chief,” that was his nickname. All we ever called him was Chief. I never saw him without a smile on his face. And he was ready to talk aviation to anybody, any age, anytime. 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 [when] 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 taxiing, finally out on the runway and finally one day did the taxiing, but went on into the air (laughs) and had been flying ever since.

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 [blacks] 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 . . . were training as mechanics at Chanute Field [near] Rantoul, Ill. That’s just a few miles up the road from where I was in school.

The story is that you weren’t familiar with planes at the time. Is that right?

I’m not one of those that heard a plane or saw one and said, “I want to do that someday” at all. But I told folks after my first flight, I knew I made the right decision. I fell in love with flying. Years later 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.

President Truman ordered the military to integrate in 1948. What was Tuskegee’s role 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.”

The Air Force really led the country in proceeding in that direction. 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 as second-class citizens.

Do you still keep in touch with other Airmen?

Since we were all together from 1941 to 1949 — our marriages, first children, performing in combat, performing in training — we developed lifelong friendships.

We’ve had annual conventions since 1972 and we’re still getting together. Our numbers are dwindling rather rapidly these days, but that’s expected.

To read the entire interview, go to www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/federal-eye.

The previous version of this interview reported that Charles McGee has his Congressional Gold Medal on display in his home. The medal in his home is a replica of the single medal awarded to Tuskegee Airmen as a group by then-President George W. Bush in 2007. The medal is currently on display in the World War II Aviation gallery at the National Air and Space Museum.

Bethonie Butler is a producer and a reporter on The Post’s engagement team. She oversees online comments and has also contributed to The Style Blog and She The People.
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