Col. Charles McGee
Charles McGee, who hadn't been in an airplane when he arrived at Tuskegee Institute in 1942, just wanted equal opportunity and the chance to be graded on his performance. Thirty years later he retired as a Colonel, holding the highest three-war total of combat missions in U.S. Air Force history. In this month's Profile, AVweb's Joe Godfrey talks with Colonel McGee about his love of flying, and how the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. honor the past and shape the future.
Charles Edward McGee was born December 7, 1919, in Cleveland, Ohio. His mother died giving birth to his sister when he was about a year old. On his 22nd birthday Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and WWII soon interrupted his studies at the University of Illinois. McGee was sworn into the enlisted reserve on October 26, 1942, and entered Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet Training. He received his silver wings as a single-engine pilot and a commission as 2nd Lieutenant on June 30, 1943, as a member of Class 43-F, Tuskegee Army Air Field, SE Flying Training Command.
McGee became a career aviator. In his 30 years of active duty he became a command pilot with over 6,100 total hours. He flew fighter aircraft combat tours in three major military conflicts, the P-39, P-47 and P-51 with the 302nd Fighter Squadron in Italy during WWII, the F-51 with the 67th Fighter Bomber Squadron in Korea, and the RF-4C with the 16th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS) in Viet Nam. He commanded the 44th Fighter Bomber Squadron in the Philippines in 1951-53, the 7230th Support Squadron in Italy 1961-63, the 16th TRS 1967-68, and the 1840th Air Base Wing and Richards-Gebaur AFB, Missouri, in 1972. He retired from active duty on January 31, 1973, with 409 missions— the highest three-war total in USAF history.
Colonel McGee's awards include the Legion of Merit with Oak Left Cluster, Distinguished Flying Cross with Two Clusters, Bronze Star, Air Medal with 25 Clusters, Army Commendation Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal with Cluster, Presidential Unit Citation, Korean Presidential Citation, The Hellenic Republic WWII Commemorative Medal and several campaign and service ribbons. He holds a BA in Business Administration. After his military career he became Director of Real Estate and Purchasing for ISC Financial Corp., and VP of Real Estate for its subsidiary, Interstate Securities Company. He managed Kansas City Downtown airport before he retired in 1982. Since then he has been active in church and charity work, and served as President of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. from 1983-85.
Colonel McGee and his late wife, Frances, raised three children. His daughter Charlene is Associate Dean for Administration and Finance at the Osteopathic Hospital at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, and wrote Colonel McGee's biography. His son Ronald is a Captain with Continental Airlines and is an instructor and check airman for the Boeing 777. His daughter Yvonne is a television editor and producer who recently began taking flying lessons.
What was your childhood like?
I don't remember much about Cleveland, but I remember visiting my grandparents in the mountains of West Virginia. I remember the smell of the bakery in the morning when they'd fire up for the new day. Life was pleasant. We didn't have a lot but we managed and enjoyed family togetherness. We moved to the Midwest in about the third grade, and I was able to get into the Boy Scouts and some social activities. I don't recall schooling in Cleveland, but my schooling from the third grade to the end of high school was in integrated schools, or schools where the black population was so small that they didn't have separate schools. That may have had some later bearing on my getting along with others. I was in good schools and that put me on track to finish high school and consider attending college.
When the war started, blacks needed a college degree to get into flying. But by 1942, when we were deeply involved in the war, you could sign up for Aviation Cadet Training with two years of college. Because that opportunity turned out to be a segregated opportunity, I didn't get a call to begin training until late October of 1942.
Had you been interested in airplanes and flying?
I had never been around one. My only experience was with paper airplanes and looking the other way when the teacher would try to see if it was you that threw it. I was in Army ROTC at the University of Illinois, and since I was in the Pershing Rifles I knew what the life of the footsoldier was all about, so I figured something had to be better than that. It was a good choice because I fell in love with aviation from the start.
So your first flight was at Tuskegee?
2nd Liuetenant McGee; 1943
My first lesson was in that PT-17 at Tuskegee Institute. We used the Institute's facilities while they were completing the Army airfield. The Army's attitudes were that blacks could not fly and didn't have the right demeanor, and the Institute was one of six black colleges with a civilian pilot training (CPT) program. It was doing so well that they were moving into the second phase of the program, which was training flight instructors. It turns out that the Army was allowed to contract the primary phase of flight training to a CPT. Tuskegee applied for and received the contract for the primary training for the 99th and those squadrons that followed, and I was in one of those. So the Army's position was that blacks can't fly, but they contracted with a black college with black instructors to give us our first training.
Some pilots already had a private license from a CPT but the Army didn't want them because they didn't have black mechanics so they couldn't use black pilots. When I graduated in June of 1943, my instructor said "It's too bad there's no bomber program of black pilots, because I think you would make a good bomber pilot." Little did he know, which I found out later, that about a month later they authorized the 477th bomb group and developed four squadrons. They were flying medium bombers like the B-29. Later, after my combat tour I rotated back and became an twin-engine instructor.
Was your trip to Tuskegee your first trip to the South?
First trip as an adult. I had spent about a year in Jacksonville, Fla., when my father was teaching at Edward Waters College when I was in the third grade. At Tuskegee you learned to move about cautiously. You learned to avoid places that might spell trouble. I wasn't looking for trouble but you never knew what you might encounter because of the attitudes in the South.
Did the hostility that surrounded you serve to solidify the cadets?
I would say that's true. At that time there was no love between the Institute and the town of Tuskegee, which was about nine miles away. The sheriff and the local police would stop people for whatever cause they might have that particular day. In the early days of the Tuskegee Army Airfield, the Commander — who was white because there were no blacks with Army experience — didn't want the Military Police on base to carry sidearms because he didn't want blacks with guns approaching the white civilians who worked at the base. That commander didn't stay there long and Noel Parrish moved from Director of Operations to the command. He didn't change the attitude of segregation but he did believe in equal opportunity and measuring one's performance, and that helped a lot.
The fact that we did everything in segregation did meld us together in a unique way. We went through all phases of training together, we graduated together, we formed a unit, the four fighter squadrons and the four bomber squadrons. The four fighter squadrons went into combat together, still segregated, both overseas and back at home, as we married and our kids came along. So from 1941 until about 1948 we were all together. That led to friendships that lasted a lifetime and gave our unit a togetherness that I don't think any other unit had. Other units would go one place for primary, somewhere else for advanced, then might be broken up to different fighter and bomber units. At Tuskegee we wanted the opportunity to train without standards being changed and be graded on that performance, and I think getting to know and understand one another eventually showed in our performance.
Which airplanes did you like to fly?
Captain McGee and "Kitten"; Italy, 1944
First I have to give credit to our mechanics and technicians. The fine print in the program said "and all the necessary support." Just like our pilots had no previous experience, our mechanics may have been auto mechanics or something else, but they were trained and supported, too. Not only did they maintain the training airplanes that we flew, from the PT-17 and the BT-13 for basic, the AT-6 for advanced, the P-40 for initial combat — and that was the key fighter in '41 — then by '43 we had the P-39 and the P-47 coming out. Three of the fighter squadrons flew the P-39 in combat and the 99th flew the P-40 in combat for over a year. As we moved from tactical work to the strategic escort work with the bombers they flew the P-47 Thunderbolt. Well, that was a new airplane to the mechanics and technicians as well as the pilots.
The 302nd was one of five fighter groups picked to begin the escorts. We flew the P-47 for about 6 weeks from May until July of '44, and then we got the P-51s. There was one P-38 outfit for a while but I think they did more special missions than escorts. I think most fighter pilots would say the P-51 was the best of the fighter aircraft. I say that because of its maneuverability from the ground all the way to 35,000 feet. Escorting B-17s we were often above 30,000. They would trim up and keep getting higher to stay above the antiaircraft fire, and we'd go up with them. The P-51 was ideal for that work. And there's nothing like the sound of that inline Merlin engine.
Tell us about some of your missions.
We had a variety of missions. I think my first P-51 mission was a fighter sweep. Depending on the nature of the bomb raid and the weather we would sweep in and damage and destroy German aircraft on the ground. I think my longest mission was working with the Yugoslav underground evacuating some of our pilots that had been shot down over the Balkans. Around the D-Day timeframe, we flew the P-47 in southern France to push the Germans back from the coast.
Many times in escort we'd see German fighters but if they stayed away from the bombstream we were escorting we didn't leave the bombers just to chase them. But if they got close enough that they were a threat, we'd dispatch a group to go get them. That's what happened in August of 1944 at the Pardubice aerodrome, north of Vienna , and I shot down an Me-109.
Is that your only air combat action?
Yes. I got credit for destroying one and damaging a lot of German airplanes on the ground but that was my only air action. I had 58 long-range escort missions from January to November of 1944. I had a total of 136 missions. About 80 were tactical and the rest were escorts.
Who were some of the pilots you flew with?
7,000th mission flown by 18th Fighter/Bomber Group; Korea, 1951
One of the hardest losses I had was my wingman, who got shot down on his 97th mission. He wasn't lost to enemy action, it was an accident that happened because of the location of our airstrip. When you lose somebody close it certainly does impact you, but you go on, because the training is the mission is there to be done and you can't forget the task at hand. I found that out in subsequent actions as well.
Where did you go after the war?
Back to Tuskegee, because of the attitudes that were still prevalent. I was selected to go into twin-engine training, first in the AT-10 and then the TB-25. They took out the guns and the armor plate and it made an excellent training platform, because pilots were actually training in the airplane that they'd be flying on medium range bombing missions.
Did you enjoy being an instructor?
I found it very rewarding. I think you learn more about flying by teaching somebody else than any other way. You have to be able to explain all the elements, and keep yourself on your toes to be able to impart the right techniques. So yes, I enjoyed teaching a lot.
With the war over in Europe we were preparing to send the 477th to the Pacific and the 302nd had been disbanded. The 477th composite group became two squadrons of B-25s of the 477th, and two squadrons from the 332nd, and P-47s from the 99th and the 100th. When Tuskegee closed in 1946 we were all sent to Lockbourne Air base in Columbus, Ohio. I became Base Operations and Training officer, which put me in charge of test work on aircraft, and instrument training for the annual proficiency of the rated base pilots. When the Air Force separated from the Army they deactivated the composite group and reactivated the 332nd Fighter Group and Wing. Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. became our Commander under the Tactical Air Command.
About that time they said "You can't fly all the time," so I went off for ten months of training to Chanute field as a maintenance officer. When I completed training I went to my first integrated assignment. In 1946 the Air Force had decided to integrate and use manpower and talent and they could save money by not maintaining separate facilities and training. A year later President Truman signed the famous Executive Order integrating all the service branches. I feel that our performance helped bring that about because we showed that it's not about race or color or ethnic origin, it's about training and opportunity.
Speaking of opportunity, were there any opportunities open to a black pilot outside of the military?
No. Not a bit. Because of my love of flying and the joy it brought me, I elected to stay in. We had all the elements, like any other segment of the population. Some, as soon as they could get back home to civilian life, did that. Others went back after they closed the base. I stayed in because I enjoyed the flying and even though I was a maintenance officer I still had the rating. In the '50's I thought a time or two about getting out and going to the airlines, but they weren't ready. In fact it wasn't until the early '60's, after a couple of lawsuits, that the first black airline pilot was hired. By that time I had a Korean tour behind me and a promotion and I still enjoyed the work I was doing and the flying so I stayed in.
How did the organization of Tuskegee Airmen get formed?
We didn't start the organization until 1972. There had been a couple of reunion efforts in Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York — big cities where you'd expect a concentration of people — and people had kept in touch. But, the organization was started in 1972 as a Veteran's organization. Four years later we amended our charter to be educational and charitable. Our focus has been to preserve our heritage and history and what it has meant to civil rights in our country, and to promote the opportunities for youth in our country in aviation and space. Ours is a very diverse country, but our diversity doesn't show up in all areas of our economy and culture. So those two things have been our focus.
We now have 44 chapters. This year our convention is in San Antonio. Next year, Memphis. Our national scholarship fund, which began in 1979 with five $1,000 scholarships going to needy youngsters leaving high school and going to college in an aviation and space career, is now up to 45 scholarships of $1,500 each. Our goal is to get to 50, then maybe we'll look at two-year and four-year scholarships. Our goal so far has been just to spur some interest in that field of study.
Some of my classmates are still living, but our Lone Eagles memorial grows every month, it seems, because of where we are in our lifespan. We've been meeting annually since 1972, and because of the way we organized we've never made a list of the many hundreds that were involved in the Tuskegee experience. When we showed up at Tuskegee to serve our country, we didn't start out to be Tuskegee Airmen — that's just the way things happened. The fighter squadrons of the 302nd have been picked up in the Air Force Heritage program and either current active or reserve units are carrying on the number and the history of the squadron. And being a 30-year veteran means I've got lots of friends scattered around the country.
Are you still flying?
If someone's got a seat open, I'm ready. I stopped flying when my wife took ill a few years back. I've tried to live by two rules. One, when you think you know it all you'd better quit flying; and two, to fly safely you do it frequently and regularly. When I couldn't do that I began to back out of active flying. I keep up the interest so I can talk firsthand to youngsters. And if I'm at an airshow and somebody's got a seat open, I'd love to go.
Chicago's DODO Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. and EAA's Young Eagles Program have teamed up at Meigs Field. So far they've given over 3,500 rides to inner-city youth. For more information or to schedule a ride call 312-409-5621.
The Tuskegee Airmen website is under construction. You can reach the national headquarters at 888-875-3433.We'll provide the link as soon as it's up.