Tuskegee Airmen’s ‘greatest torchbearer’ dies at 102


Retired Air Force Brig. General Charles McGee, a member of the revolutionary group of black military airmen known as the Tuskegee Airmen, died Sunday at his home in Bethesda, Maryland, at the age of 102.

McGee, who flew more than 400 combat missions in three different wars, celebrated his birthday at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph on Dec. 6.

“I think he’s probably the biggest torchbearer for the Tuskegee Airmen,” said Rick Sinkfield, Tuskegee Airmen San Antonio chapter president and national public relations manager for the group.

“He brought the idea that there was no giving up among them and no one was going back. They were eager to show that these guys were capable, smart enough and ready to fight for their country” , said Sinkfield, an Air Force veteran, “He always made a big deal out of it.”

In the Separate Armed Forces, Tuskegee Airmen were forced to fight fellow Americans, in civilian life and in the military, before fighting in the air with the Nazis in World War II. Black servicemen were generally relegated to non-combat jobs, even in the war zone.

The all-African-American 332nd Fighter Group became a striking exception. Comprised of the 301st, 302nd, 99th, and 100th Fighter Squadrons, the 332nd Fighter Group’s force numbered up to 14,000 airmen, including about 1,000 pilots. He made history in the skies of war-torn Europe.

McGee was stationed in Italy with the 301st Fighter Squadron and flew his first mission on February 14, 1944. Six months later, while en route to log 137 combat missions during the war, he shot down a German fighter Focke-Wulf 190 over Czechoslovakia.

McGee then served in Korea, flying P-51 Mustangs with the 67th Fighter Bomber Squadron after North Korea invaded the south in the summer of 1950. McGee flew 100 missions in a variety of early combat aircraft used in Korea. At that time, President Harry S. Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces.

McGee served in his third war as a lieutenant colonel in Vietnam, flying the RF-4, a photo reconnaissance aircraft.

Retired Brigadier General Charles McGee during his visit to Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph in December. McGee, an Airman from Tuskegee, died Sunday at the age of 102.

Robin Jerstad /Robin Jerstad

In total, he flew 409 combat missions and logged 6,308 flight hours over 30 years.

He retired from the Air Force as a Colonel in 1973.

It all made for a remarkable career, but Sinkfield said the role McGee and other Tuskegee Airmen played in breaking the color barrier was his greatest contribution.

“He always mentioned that and the fact that it was almost the first time there was a breakthrough,” recalls Sinkfield, 72. “He just mentioned that these guys were fighting for a county that didn’t necessarily like them as a group and yet they felt like it was worth fighting for.

McGee’s visit to Randolph AFB in San Antonio on Dec. 6 was a triumphant celebration of a long life and his contributions to the Air Force and his country. He arrived a day before his 102nd birthday, but the event turned into a party anyway.

He was unwell and in pain, but he was also in good spirits as well-wishers celebrated his role in American military history.

In a wheelchair, McGee replied, “Happy Holidays!”

Dressed in his blue Air Force uniform, he visited the 99th Flying Training Squadron in Randolph, which traces its roots to the 332nd Fighter Group. The group’s aircraft, which escorted bombers during World War II, were known as the “Red Tails”.

McGee gave a tour of the squadron and its aircraft and performed a simulator flight in a T-1A Jayhawk, a twin-engine trainer.

“What a pleasure to be here and to be able to see what’s going on,” McGee told the crowd. “I can just say, another blessing in my life, certainly, to be here to celebrate with you…and also to have a better understanding of what’s going on now, when we look at some of the pictures around the room and say , “Look what 80 years have done for us.”

McGee was born in Cleveland, Ohio. His father, Lewis Allen McGee, was a teacher, social worker and Methodist minister – jobs that involved frequent moves.

Young McGee was an achiever, earning his Eagle Scout badge in 1940. He was an engineering student at the University of Illinois when he enlisted in the Army in 1942. He returned to earn his bachelor’s degree in 1978, at age 58.

McGee joined the Tuskegee Airmen and earned his wings on June 30, 1943. Before his career ended, he had earned the Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters, the Legion of Merit with one oak leaf cluster, the Bronze Star, the Air Medal with 25 oak leaf clusters, the Army Commendation Medal, a Presidential Unit Citation, a Korean Presidential Unit Citation, and the World War II Commemorative Medal of the Hellenic Republic, as well as related campaign and service ribbons.

In 2007, McGee and other Tuskegee Airmen received the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor. In a ceremony at the United States Capitol, then-President George W. Bush told Airmen, “I would like to offer a gesture to help atone for all unreturned salutes and unpardonable indignities. And so, on behalf of my office and a country that honors you, I salute you for your service to the United States of America.

During a ceremony at the White House in 2019, President Donald Trump recognized McGee’s honorary promotion to brigadier general.

Larry Romo, a former National Commander of the American GI Forum of the United States, announced McGee’s death on Facebook: “May our hero rest in peace! Heaven has a new angel!

Sinkfield thought back to the celebration on the Randolph tarmac that followed McGee’s tour of the squadron’s offices, which are adorned with paintings of scenes of Tuskegee Airmen and their top leaders, including the former boss of McGee, General Benjamin O. Davis Jr.

On the flight line at Randolph next to a T-1A Jayhawk with his name painted on the side, McGee was mobbed by well-wishers who posed for photos with him. Dressed in a Vietnam veteran‘s cap and a winter coat that protected him from the gusts of a cold front, he drank a Coca-Cola and at one point pretended to pour it on the head.

It was a lighthearted moment that hinted at an important piece of history.

Years earlier, in 1943, Lt. Charles B. “Buster” Hall became the first black U.S. Army pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft, a German FW-190 he had encountered while flying a P-40 Warhawk during the Allied War. invasion of Sicily. To celebrate, the squadron gave Hall the last chilled bottle of coke on base.

Hall also received the Distinguished Flying Cross and a Commendation from General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander.

During McGee’s visit to Randolph, “they gave him the Coca Cola that Charles B. Hall would have received when he shot down the first German fighter,” Sinkfield said.

“He probably shouldn’t have taken that Coke,” he added with a chuckle, “but he drank it.”



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