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Charles McGee, celebrated Tuskegee Airman, dies at 102

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today we remember a hero, a pioneer and a veteran of three wars who was among the all-Black Tuskegee Airmen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLES MCGEE: I was 22 when I got into flying. When the call came, I responded and ended up making it a career because I enjoyed it so much.

KELLY: Brigadier General Charles Edward McGee died on Sunday at the age of 102. He was among hundreds of Black men who trained outside Tuskegee, Ala., to fight for the U.S. during World War II.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCGEE: We turned our back on the fact that there was segregation, if you will, and took advantage of the opportunity to prove that we can fly airplanes. We can maintain airplanes. In other words, we can do whatever our education and aspirations - where those things lead us.

KELLY: The men endured intense racism. Their intelligence, their courage were often questioned. Former President George W. Bush put it this way at a ceremony honoring the airmen in 2007.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE W BUSH: These men in our presence felt a special sense of urgency. They were fighting two wars. One was in Europe, and the other took place in the hearts and minds of our citizens.

KELLY: General McGee went on to serve in Korea and Vietnam. By the time he retired in 1973, he had flown 409 combat missions.

BRIAN SMITH: McGee has the distinction of flying some of the most single combat missions of any soldier in the United States Air Force or military, and that's a feat.

KELLY: Brian Smith is president of the Tuskegee Airmen National Museum. He called McGee a patriotic American hero.

SMITH: He was very patriotic to this country and not in the way that you hear patriotism talked about by some today. He wanted equality for all.

KELLY: Two years ago, McGee celebrated his 100th birthday doing what he loved - piloting a small jet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Welcome aboard, captain.

MCGEE: Beautiful, smooth, wonderful, great day of visibility. Folks, quite a country we're flying over.

KELLY: Vice President Kamala Harris and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced McGee's death yesterday on Twitter, thanking him for his service and his legacy. Here's how McGee himself saw that legacy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCGEE: The legacy I feel that we leave is that our young folks, regardless of their circumstances - say, where they're born or where they live, the school they attend - that they can achieve if they believe it.

KELLY: The words of Brigadier General Charles McGee. He died yesterday. He was 102.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL SIMON SONG, "FATHER AND DAUGHTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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