December 18, 2019

Colonel Charles McGee: Examining A Life Of Service And Fortitude From 45,000 Feet — And 100 Years

By Maura Currie

Ret. Colonel Charles McGee at WAMU on Dec. 18, 2019 -- eleven days after his 100th birthday. <i>Jacob Fenston/WAMU</i>

Ret. Colonel Charles McGee at WAMU on Dec. 18, 2019 -- eleven days after his 100th birthday. Jacob Fenston/WAMU

Colonel Charles McGee flew over 6,000 hours and over 400 missions over the course of his career with the Army Air Forces. He holds flight time records, medals and honors for his service, which spanned three conflicts.

But when he enlisted, the country he wanted to serve frequently asserted he — and other black men — were less than human.

“Here in America, when we show up, it’s ‘Oh, you’re black.’ [Abroad], I was Charles. And folks treated you like you treated them. … When we came home, even after the war, it was still Blacks this way, Whites this way. It took America a while to realize that there was a better way of living life.”

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African American aviators in the U.S. military.  As the Second World War’s theatres expanded to make the sky a battlefield, President Franklin D. Roosevelt expanded training initiatives for civilians interested in aviation. One of those initiatives, a cadet training program for African American men, was based at Tuskegee Airfield in Tuskegee, Alabama.

The Tuskegee Airmen piloted escort and sweeper planes for bombers, which were operated by white pilots. While the mythos of their having never “lost” a bomber has been dispelled by historians, they were still considered an elite team with a better-than-average track record for protecting U.S. planes.

A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor, F-16 Fighting Falcon and a Commemorative Air Force P-51 Mustang fly in formation Sep. 6, 2018, while flying over areas of Alabama. (U.S. Air Force photo / Staff Sgt. Clayton Cupit)

The reputation of the “Red Tails” — nicknamed for their distinctive paint jobs — preceded them, even across enemy lines.

But the breaking of racial barriers didn’t change the reality of racism in mid-20th century America, nor did being a service member render the Tuskegee Airmen immune to its effects.

“We went through town [in Tuskegee] very carefully,” McGee told us. “During those days we were glad to have members from the South also in the cadet program, and they let us from the North know, ‘Oh, you don’t buy gas from this part of town,’ or, ‘You don’t mingle in that part of town.'”

Ret. Colonel McGee thinks racial equity has improved massively in the military since his service, and notes the progressive history of his own branch: “The Air Force, with their commitment, led the country in integration.”

McGee with Kojo Nnamdi on Dec. 18, 2019. Jacob Fenston / WAMU

Now a resident of Bethesda, MD, McGee has been retired since 1973. But he still remembers his time in the military fondly, and he still loves to fly. In early December 2019, he flew a Cirrus SF50 Vision Jet from Frederick, Maryland, to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware — and, the day before his 100th birthday, McGee’s copilot noted that he was truly handling most of the flying himself.

“I remember getting aircrafts at sunset, being able to climb up to 45,000 feet, see the sunset again. Stars come out. And it just reminded me that we human beings are one small aspect in a mighty grand universe.”

Interview produced by Maura Currie