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Charles McGee, Tuskegee Airman who fought in three wars, dies at 102

More than four decades after he retired from the military, he received an honorary promotion to brigadier general

Tuskegee Airman and veteran fighter pilot Charles E. McGee flies a Cirrus Vision SF50 with assistance from a co-pilot in 2019. The retired Air Force colonel later received an honorary promotion to brigadier general. (David Tulis/AP)
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Charles E. McGee, a retired Air Force brigadier general who flew combat missions in three wars and broke racial barriers as a Tuskegee Airman, serving in an all-Black unit during World War II and helping inspire the next generation of aviators with his fortitude and courage, died Jan. 16 at his home in Bethesda, Md. He was 102.

The cause was not yet known, but he had been recovering from a brief hospitalization, said his daughter Charlene McGee Smith. His death was also announced on Twitter by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Vice President Harris, who both called him “an American hero.”

Gen. McGee was one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen, who overcame racism and oppression to fly World War II combat missions at a time when the armed forces were still segregated and some officers questioned whether African Americans had the skill, intelligence and courage to become military pilots.

“Once we proved that we could fly, they said we didn’t have the guts to fight in combat,” he said in a 1989 interview with The Washington Post. “But our record,” he added wryly, “speaks for itself.” Relatively few Allied bombers were lost on their watch, and the Tuskegee Airmen were credited with destroying more than 250 enemy aircraft, including a German fighter that Gen. McGee shot down while escorting B-17s over Czechoslovakia.

Over a 30-year career in the Army Air Forces and its successor, the Air Force, Gen. McGee logged 6,308 flying hours and a remarkable 409 combat missions, among the most in service history. He flew bombing and strafing missions out of Pusan during the Korean War and piloted a photographic reconnaissance plane based near Saigon during the Vietnam War, going on at least 100 combat missions in both conflicts. In each war, his plane was hit by enemy fire, both times on the right wing.

Although he retired in 1973 as a colonel, he celebrated his 100th birthday with an honorary promotion, with President Donald Trump pinning the general’s star on his uniform at a White House ceremony in 2020. He was cheered by a joint session of Congress at Trump’s State of the Union address a few hours later, and that same year he joined three other centenarian veterans in presenting the coin toss at Super Bowl LIV.

“Folks say, ‘You’re a hero.’ I don’t see it like that,” Gen. McGee said in 2018, when he celebrated his 99th birthday by piloting a private HondaJet between Dulles International Airport and the Hampton Roads region in Virginia. “I just say life’s been a blessing.”

The second of three children, Charles Edward McGee was born in Cleveland on Dec. 7, 1919. One of his great-grandfathers was enslaved before fighting in the Civil War and serving as a minister. Gen. McGee’s father was also a minister, and took jobs as a teacher and social worker, leading the family to move across the Midwest. His mother died when he was a toddler.

After graduating from high school in Chicago in 1938, Gen. McGee spent a year with the Civilian Conservation Corps, earning money to enroll at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He studied engineering and joined the ROTC. By the time his draft card arrived, he had decided that the infantry was not for him. “I knew what the foot soldiers had to face,” he recalled, “so I said something had to be better.”

Upon learning that an all-Black aviation unit was training nearby, at Chanute Field — at the time, the squadron only included mechanics and support personnel — he applied to the Tuskegee program and was accepted as a pilot. He got his flight-school orders in October 1942, two days after he married a college classmate, Frances Nelson. (He later christened his P-51 fighter “Kitten,” after a nickname for his wife — and also because his crew chief “kept that engine purring like a kitten,” as he put it.)

Gen. McGee headed south to the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama but was puzzled at having to change his seat when the train crossed the Mason-Dixon Line. He arrived at a flight school that was in the heart of the Jim Crow South, and he relied on fellow aviators for guidance. “Other cadets who grew up in the South let us know what was safe to do and what not to do,” he recalled.

More than 900 Black pilots trained at Tuskegee, and more than 400 served overseas, piloting aircraft that were easily identifiable by the red paint on their tails. The pilots became symbols of Black excellence at a time when many African Americans were waging a “Double Victory” campaign, fighting for freedom from Axis powers overseas and from racism at home. “You could say that one of the things we were fighting for was equality,” Gen. McGee told the Associated Press in 1995. “Equality of opportunity. We knew we had the same skills, or better.”

Gen. McGee arrived in Italy in 1944 as a member of the 332nd Fighter Group and flew more than 130 patrol, escort and strafing missions, piloting P-39 Airacobras, P-47 Thunderbolts and P-51 Mustangs. After President Harry S. Truman issued a 1948 executive order banning racial segregation in the military, Gen. McGee held several command posts, becoming the first African American to oversee a stateside Air Force wing and base in the integrated Air Force.

His military decorations included the Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star Medal and Air Medal. He later said he had considered leaving the military after World War II but decided “the airlines weren’t ready” for Black pilots.

Gen. McGee returned to school to receive a bachelor’s degree in business, graduating from Columbia College in Missouri in 1978. He worked in real estate and directed what is now the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport in Kansas City, where a terminal was renamed in his honor last year.

The Tuskegee Airmen were collectively awarded a Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor Congress can give civilians, in 2007 for their “unique military record that inspired revolutionary reform in the Armed Forces.” Four years later, Gen. McGee was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

In addition to his daughter McGee Smith, of Athens, Ohio, and Annapolis, Md., survivors include two other children, Ronald McGee of Las Vegas and Yvonne G. McGee of Bethesda; 10 grandchildren; 14 great-grandchildren; and a great-great-granddaughter. His wife, Frances, died in 1994.

Gen. McGee was a former president of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., which promotes the unit’s history. He frequently spoke at aviation events and school assemblies, encouraging young people to follow their dreams and to go into aviation. Flying, he would say, was something of a religious experience.

“There’s no way to tell you how it was, in an airplane, alone at 35,000 feet,” he said in The Post interview, looking back on his years as a military pilot. “No noise. No clutter of the earth. It’s a feeling I didn’t know would be there when I first became a pilot, but it’s what kept me up there.”

He winked. “It’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to heaven.”