‘We Overcame Enormous Obstacles’: Tuskegee Airman Who Flew Over 400 Combat Missions Dies At 102

Charles McGee, a Tuskegee airman who flew over 400 combat missions during his military career, died at the age of 102. McGee, who flew in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, died in his sleep on Sunday at his house in Bethesda, Maryland. 

Yvonne McGee, his daughter, said that her father “had his right hand over his heart and was smiling serenely,” when he died. 

As a Tuskegee airman, McGee was one of the first black combat pilots, and he holds a record for his 409 aerial combat missions. 

“McGee remained in the Army Air Corps, later the U.S. Air Force, and served for 30 years. He flew low-level bombing and strafing missions during the Korean War and returned to combat again during the Vietnam War.” the Associated Press reported. “The National Aviation Hall of Fame says his 409 aerial fighter combat missions in three wars remains a record.”

During World War II, nearly 1,000 airmen were trained at Tuskegee with 350 being sent abroad for duty. After the war had ended, about 150 Tuskegee Airmen had been killed in combat or other accidents.  The Tuskegee airmen have been honored not only as being the first black combat pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps but also for their prowess on the battlefield. 

According to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, the Tuskegee Airmen downed over 100 enemy planes, took out 150 grounded aircraft, took out at least 40 boats and barges, and wrecked 600 railway cars throughout World War II.

“You could say that one of the things we were fighting for was equality,” McGee said in a 1995 AP interview. “Equality of opportunity. We knew we had the same skills, or better.”

After finishing flight school, McGee became part of the ‘Red Tails’ in 1944 serving on 136 missions with the 332nd Fighter Group, an all black unit. 

In 2019, he was promoted by Congress and former President Donald Trump to be an honorary brigadier general, a one star ranking. Later McGee, who was born on December  7, 1919, was a special guest at Trump’s 2020 State of the Union Address. 

Writing for the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, McGee said that he was happy with the progress America had made in ending segregation, but noted that he wished Americans knew more about their history. 

I am pleased that America has put segregation and other forms of racial discrimination behind us. But I am bothered that so few young people understand World War II history, including the unique contribution of the Tuskegee Airmen. It’s important for our young people to not only know where our country is going, but also where it’s been,” he wrote.

McGee also noted that 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 8 Purple Hearts, and 14 Bronze Stars were awarded to Tuskegee Airmen. 

“I am often asked why the Tuskegee Airmen were so successful in combat. I would say it was because of our courage and perseverance. We dreamed of being pilots as boys but were told it was not possible,” McGee continued. “Through faith and determination we overcame enormous obstacles. This is a lesson that all young people need to hear.”

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