In a ceremony today, Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport in Kansas City, Missouri, renamed its general aviation terminal to pay tribute to Brig. Gen. Charles McGee, one of only nine living Tuskegee Airmen who served in World War II. McGee, 101, attended the celebration.
In 1940 while enrolled in an engineering program at the University of Illinois, McGee joined of the Reserve Officers Training Program (ROTC). With war clouds churning, word flashed through the black community that an experimental Army squadron of African American aviators was in the works. While he was riding to church on his birthday, Dec. 7, the radio broadcast news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. McGee applied for a pilot’s slot, passed the exams, and a few months later he got the call to report to the Army Air Forces training base in Tuskegee, Alabama, where he first experienced the challenges of the Deep South in the 1940s.
As a young fighter pilot based in Italy, McGee flew 137 combat missions during World War II with the all-black 332d Fighter Group, known as the Tuskegee Airmen after the Alabama base where they trained. Bomber crews that were escorted by the group called them the “Red Tails” for the distinctive paint scheme of their P-51 Mustangs’ empennage.
After the war, McGee served in the U.S. Air Force for a career spanning more than three decades. He flew combat missions in the Korean War and in Vietnam, for a total of 409 sorties during the three conflicts. McGee was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters, the Bronze Star and the Congressional Gold Medal as a member of the Tuskegee Airmen. He entered the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2011 and was promoted to Air Force Brigadier General in February 2020.
Once asked about the success of what was called the “Tuskegee Experiment,” McGee said, “It was an achievement, without violence, that advanced the military and the country. I had been taught to look at the positive and eliminate the negative—not dwell on it. We all believed in our capabilities and talents. So don’t let discouraging moments deter you. That’s a message I deliver to young people to this day.”