He fought in 3 wars. Flew 409 combat missions. Shattered misconceptions about Black pilots and died at 102 years old. His name was Charles McGee. And he was an American hero.
Hello listeners, this is JP Robinson your host on Heroes and Villains. Thank you for tuning in to today’s episode. Heroes and Villains, is a bi-weekly podcast spotlighting the people of the world wars.
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You know, February is Black History month which often causes people to think about slavery and the Civil Rights movement. It goes without saying that these are critical aspects of Black History but there are also many other aspects that don’t often get as much attention.
For a long time I’ve thought it’s very important to commemorate the men and women of Color who did incredible things for our country and so, today, I want to spotlight an all-American hero, Tuskegee Airman, church leader and inspirer of youth: Charles McGee.
The son of a teacher and minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church, McGee’s mother died when he was still an infant. He saved his money to attend the University of Illinois and got married in 1942, the same year that he enlisted in the Tuskegee Airmen. The dangers were clear. The challenges were many. But McGee was resolved to serve his country no matter what it took.
What I’m learning
Now, to give this some context, I’m embroiled in drafting a novel that focuses on the Tuskegee pilots and their families during WW2. As I pore over video footage, comb through historical records and speak with military experts, I realized that I had no idea how much sacrifice, hope, and dreams are wrapped up in those two words, Tuskegee Airman.
In the 1930s and 40s, the American military—like much of American society—was segregated. There was a cap on how many Blacks could serve in the armed forces. Those that served were often marginalized because of their skin color and sometimes lived with the threat of violence by their own side hanging over them.
For example, the following dialogue is a conversation between two White officers of the American Air Force, retrieved from the Smithsonian Institute website, speaking about the 477th Bombardment Group.
“Others [White Officers] displayed an eagerness for violence against their fellow officers, as one said: “If one of them [a Black pilot] makes a crack at my wife, laughs or whistles at her, like I saw them do to some white girls downtown, so help me, I’ll kill him.” Another bragged about taking part in lynching, saying “I killed two of them in my hometown, and it wouldn’t bother me to do it again.”
Wow! The horror of these statements should really underscore the level of determination that these pilots and their support staff maintained. With that backdrop, let’s take a look at how Mr. McGee and others worked to change perceptions while keeping their own humanity intact.
What McGee did and how he did it
President Franklin D. Roosevelt had directed that a program to train Black pilots and support personnel be established. About 14,000 volunteers from across the country answered the call during wartime and came to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Most didn’t become pilots but instead served as mechanics etc. But one of the approximately 1,000 men who did become pilots was Charles McGee.
McGee earned his wings in 1943. One year later he, along with other Tuskegee pilots, was deployed to Italy under the command of Colonel Benjamin Davis. The pilots formed up the 332nd Fighter Group. At the time, Mr. McGee was a lieutenant and his primary role was to escort heavy bombers—such as B-17 and B-24 planes—on bombing missions across Europe. McGee flew with his wife’s nickname, “Kitten” written on his plane. He earned the rank of captain and flew more than 130 combat missions during the war.
The contributions of the Tuskegee airmen were indisputably a key reason the US Air Force would become an early racially integrated force.
Captain McGee remained in the US Air Force after the war. When segregation officially ended in 1948 under President Truman, Captain McGee knew it wouldn’t end racism but he wasn’t one to let intimidation keep him from doing great things. His life-phrase was “Do while you can.”
During the Korean War, Captain McGee flew more than 100 combat missions and was promoted to the rank of Major. He continued his distinguished career during the Vietnam war and retired in 1973 at the rank of colonel. In 2020 Colonel McGee was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General.
You know, in looking at the long list of amazing things this man did, it might be tempting to forget that it was truly the attitude behind it which allowed him to achieve all this. He was often asked what it was like to be racially targeted at that time. McGee’s response floored me.
The New York Times quotes him as saying,
Well, fortunately, I didn’t think about that, that much.”
I draw a lot of meaning from that even beyond the scope of racism.
The right attitude can spark positive change
I hear a wise voice saying that we can focus on the criticism or problems in life and let the negativity consume us, or we can focus on fulfilling our dream, our purpose.
By focusing on preparing himself to fulfill his mission, and then doing exactly that, Brigadier General McGee was able to shatter perceptions and open doors that had been closed to millions of Americans.
We shattered all the myths,” McGee said. “A lot of what we fought for was an opportunity to overcome having someone look at you and, because of your color, close a door on you.”
And, on behalf of many of my family and friends who are people of color that have served and are still serving in various branches of America’s armed forces, I’m grateful that door was opened.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Tuskegee Airmen, there are a ton of online and print books available. Two that I recommend are Dr. Daniel Haulman’s The Tuskegee Airmen: An Illustrated History: 1939-1949 and a book written Charles McGee’s daughter—her name is Charlene E. McGee-Smith— Tuskegee Airman.
Next month I’ll be hosting Dr. Daniel Haulman who’s a retired historian for the United Air Force in an interview here on Heroes and Villains so be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel, just search JP Robinson Books or follow me on social media so you don’t miss a moment.
Thanks for joining me and see you next time.
About JP Robinson
JP Robinson is a prolific award-winning author. He graduated from SUNY Stony Brook university at 19 with a Bachelor’s degree in English and another in French. He is currently wrapping up his Master’s of Education.
JP is a contributor to Guideposts, Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse, and the Salvation Army’s War Cry. His work has been praised by industry leaders such as Publishers Weekly and secured the #1 spot on Amazon’s historical thrillers category.