Black History Month is recognized in several countries. In the United States, February is Black History Month also known as African-American History Month (AAHM). President Ford formally recognized Black History Month in 1976. AAHM is the successor to National Negro History Week, which dates back to 1926. The idea is to highlight the too-often overlooked significant contributions of African Americans.
This post honors Brigadier General Charles McGee, United States Air Force. While General McGee’s accomplishments have been far from overlooked, I’m creating this post because of General McGee’s service with the segregated Tuskegee Airmen of World War II and his recent passing on January 16, 2022 at age 102. I’ve had some contact with members of the Tuskegee Airmen over the years.
McGee was born in Cleveland, OH on December 7, 1919 and enlisted in the Army on Oct. 26, 1942. He became one of the first African-American fighter pilots in the United States military and was one of the last living members of the Tuskegee Airmen. They are a group of African-American fighter pilots, bomber pilots and support personnel who trained at Tuskegee, AL and fought in a segregated unit in World War II.
By February 1944, McGee was stationed in Italy with the 302nd Fighter Squadron of the 332d Fighter Group. McGee flew the Bell P-39Q Airacobra, the Republic P-47D Thunderbolt, and the North American P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft, escorting Consolidated B-24 Liberator and Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers over Europe.
On August 23, 1944, while escorting B-17s over Czechoslovakia, McGee engaged a formation of Luftwaffe fighters and shot down a Focke-Wulf Fw 190. In addition to escorting bombers, he also participated in low level strafing attacks over enemy airfields and rail yards.
His military career lasted 30 years in which McGee flew 409 combat missions in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam War. In Korea, he flew P-51 Mustangs in the 67th Fighter Bomber Squadron, completing 100 missions. During the Vietnam War, as a lieutenant colonel, McGee flew 172 combat missions in McDonnell RF-4 photo-reconnaissance aircraft. During his Southeast Asia combat tour, McGee served as the Squadron Commander of the 16th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS) of the 460th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing based at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, in South Vietnam.
McGee retired as a full colonel on Jan. 31, 1973. The only United States military pilots who flew more combat missions than McGee were Col. Harold Snow, who flew 666 missions and Col. Ralph Parr Jr., who flew 641. Among other awards and decorations, McGee received the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters, the Air Medal, the French Legion of Honor, the Bronze Star, and the Congressional Gold Medal.
McGee was honorarily promoted to Brigadier General in February 2020 just before he was a featured guest at the 2020 State of the Union Address. Paying homage to McGee is one thing Trump got right.
I have a threefold peripheral connection to the Tuskegee Airmen and McGee. First, Charles Debow (1918 – 1986), one of five members of the first cadet graduating class of Tuskegee Airmen, attended the same church in Indianapolis, IN as my family. During WWII he became commanding officer of the 332nd Fighter Group’s 301st Fighter Squadron. I had a crush on his daughter, Janie. She didn’t know it. I remember him speaking of his experiences at Tuskegee and in Europe and mentioning downing 4.5 enemy aircraft. He shared credit for one victory with another Tuskegee pilot and therefore was not an ace (5 victories) officially.
Second, in the early ’90s while a member of Civil Air Patrol, a U.S. Air Force civilian auxiliary, two Tuskegee Airmen spoke to our squadron. One was a B-25 bomber pilot and the other I believe was Charles McGee if memory serves. I’m not certain it was McGee though.
Last, one of my uncles, Joseph Douglas, was in the process of joining the Tuskegee Airmen when the war ended. He later became a professor of electrical engineering at Penn State University. My uncle and Charles Debow are two of the reasons why I learned to fly.
General McGee and the Tuskegee Airmen are great examples for African-American History Month. They demonstrated that it is possible to accomplish great things with perseverance and hard work even when the deck was heavily stacked against them.