Tuskegee Airman and Brig. Gen. Charles McGee, who flew over 400 combat missions in three wars, died peacefully in his sleep Sunday at the age of 102.
McGee began his legendary military career at the age of 23, when he applied to become a pilot in an experimental squadron after the U.S. entered World War II. After passing the examination, he began flight training with other black cadets at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama in 1942, according to his biography in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
“You could say that one of the things we were fighting for was equality,” he said in a 1995 interview with The Associated Press. “Equality of opportunity. We knew we had the same skills, or better.”
McGee joined the all-black 332nd Fighter Group, also known as the “Red Tails,” in 1944. When asked why the 332nd chose red as its color in a 1999 interview, McGee replied, “As I understand it, red paint was what was readily available.” He added that the gunners on the B-17s and B-24s “loved it” because it made them easily identifiable at high altitudes.
McGee flew 136 missions over Europe in World War II, 100 low-level bombing and strafing missions in the Korean War and 173 missions in the Vietnam War while leading the 16th Tactical Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, according to the National Aviation Hall of Fame. He retired from the Air Force in January 1973 after 30 years of military service.
His record of 409 combat missions over three wars still stands, according to the National Aviation Hall of Fame. (RELATED: Century-Old Tuskegee Airman Snaps To Attention And Salutes Trump, Then Smiles And Gives A Finger Gun)
Today, we lost an American hero. Charles McGee, Brigadier General and one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airman, passed at the age of 102. While I am saddened by his loss, I’m also incredibly grateful for his sacrifice, his legacy, and his character. Rest in peace, General. pic.twitter.com/3GLNbfRHs7
— Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III (@SecDef) January 16, 2022
McGee was promoted to the rank of brigadier general at age 100 by former President Donald Trump in February 2020, according to an Air Force press release. “Brigadier General, I sometimes look back, it’s certainly an honor to receive it now. Would have loved to have served the country in that capacity,” McGee said at the time, according to NBC 4 Washington
Century-Old Tuskegee Airman Snaps To Attention And Salutes Trump, Then Smiles And Gives A Finger Gun https://t.co/pMogzxc9HS
— Daily Caller (@DailyCaller) February 5, 2020
Frequently asked why the Tuskegee Airmen were so successful, McGee wrote in a Smithsonian essay, “I would say it was because of our courage and perseverance. We dreamed of being pilots as boys but were told it was not possible. Through faith and determination we overcame enormous obstacles. This is a lesson that all young people need to hear,” according to The AP.
“As the nation mourns, the family asks that we remember the importance and significance of the legacy he left, all of his fellow Tuskegee Airmen, and everyone who played a role in the support and protection of American democracy,” a statement from McGee’s family read, according to CNN.