Tuskegee Airman and Veteran of 3 Wars, Gen. Charles McGee Dies at 102

January 18, 2022Matt Fratus
Charles McGee Tuskegee airman coffee or die

Tuskegee Airman Charles McGee received an honorary promotion from colonel to brigadier general in 2020. He flew 409 combat missions across three wars (in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam), a feat that puts him third behind only Col. Harold Snow, who flew 666 missions, and Col. Ralph Parr Jr., who flew 641. Photo courtesy of the White House/National Archives.

Charles McGee, one of the last surviving members of the celebrated all-Black Tuskegee Airmen, died in his sleep Sunday morning, Jan. 16. He was 102.

McGee saw combat in three wars, flying 409 combat missions in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. In nearly every period of his career he blazed a trail, in military service and in retirement — but he often chose to focus on the legacy of the Black pilots he served alongside in the Tuskegee unit in an era of institutionalized segregation and racism.

“Tuskegee Airmen are Black pilots, mechanics, and support people who — when our country declared war against Hitler — came forward and dispelled the biases and generalizations that because of the color of our skin we couldn’t support our country in a technical area,” McGee said in a US Air Force promotional video, following a White House ceremony in February 2020 recognizing his honorary promotion from colonel to brigadier general. “Our task was to keep the air clear of German fighters that were destroying many of our bombers.”

Charles McGee Tuskegee airman coffee or die
US Air Force Brig. Gen. Charles McGee, retired, a Tuskegee Airman, signs a P-51 Mustang model during his visit to the 99th Flying Training Squadron Dec. 6, 2021, at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas. In celebration of the US Air Force’s 75th anniversary, McGee was treated to a heritage tour of the 99th FTS and participated in a training mission in a T-1A aircraft simulator. US Air Force photo by Sean M. Worrell.

McGee, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, pondered on his 22nd birthday whether to leave the University of Illinois early. That day, Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese launched a surprise attack against Pearl Harbor and other US bases, thrusting the United States into World War II. Then in his sophomore year, studying engineering and drilling with the university’s ROTC program, McGee ultimately decided to enlist in the US Army in 1942.

Among the 14,000 volunteers to make up the Tuskegee Airmen, fewer than 1,000, including McGee, earned their pilot’s wings to fly with the segregated 332nd Fighter Group, known as the Red Tails for the brightly painted tail sections of their aircraft. The Tuskegee Airmen’s unit remains active in today’s Air Force as the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing.

On Feb. 14, 1944, McGee piloted his first combat mission with the 301st Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group based in Italy. McGee flew escort missions inside Bell P-39Q Airacobras, Republic P-47D Thunderbolts, and North American P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft to protect B-24 Liberator and B-17 Flying Fortress bombers over Germany, Austria, and the Balkans. Sometimes their missions called for low-level strafing runs over enemy airfields and rail yards. 

McGee engaged and downed a German Luftwaffe Focke-Wulf 190 while escorting B-17 bombers on Aug. 23, 1944, over Czechoslovakia. He flew 137 combat missions in World War II and was promoted to captain. McGee returned stateside in December 1944 and became an instructor for future Tuskegee Airmen at Tuskegee Field. He remained at the base until it was closed in 1946.

In 1947, McGee transitioned to the newly independent Air Force and decided to make a career out of flying. He flew F-80 Shooting Star and F-89 Scorpion jet fighters at Lockbourne Air Field in Ohio. However, the aviator flew all 100 of his combat missions in the Korean War inside a P-51. As a lieutenant colonel in the Vietnam War, he commanded the 16th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, near Saigon, and recorded 172 combat missions in a RF-4 photoreconnaissance aircraft.  

McGee racked up 6,308 flying hours throughout his three-decade-long career. According to Air Force records, his accomplishment of 409 combat missions during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War is surpassed only by Col. Harold Snow, who flew 666 missions, and Col. Ralph Parr Jr., who flew 641. McGee earned the Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf Clusters, the Legion of Merit with one Oak Leaf Cluster, the Bronze Star, and the Air Medal with 25 Oak Leaf Clusters, in addition to two Presidential Unit Citations and other campaign and service ribbons. He retired in 1973. 

Charles McGee Tuskegee Airmen coffee or die
Left, Col. Charles McGee (at left) stands in front of the P-51C he named “Kitten” for his wife, at Ramitelli airfield in Italy. At his side is Nathaniel Wilson, the Mustang’s crew chief. Right, Charles McGee receives the Distinguished Flying Cross in Korea in 1951. Photos courtesy of the Department of Defense and Wikimedia Commons. Composite image by Coffee or Die Magazine.

After leaving military service, McGee resumed the education that World War II had interrupted and obtained a business administration degree from Columbia College in Columbia, Missouri. He worked as a corporate executive in real estate and purchasing, managed the Kansas City Downtown Airport, and created the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. support group for the unit’s past veterans. 

In 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen were honored with the Congressional Gold Medal for their trailblazing legacy, and McGee was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2011. A year later, he served as a consultant for the 2012 film Red Tails, a movie about the Tuskegee flyers. 

McGee met and married Frances Nelson in 1942, and they were married until her death in 1994. They had three children, 10 grandchildren, and 14 great-grandchildren.

Read Next: How This Three-War Double Ace Became a MiG Killer

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

More from Coffee or Die Magazine
US Launches Airstrikes in Syria After Drone Kills US Worker

While it’s not the first time the U.S. and Iran have traded airstrikes in Syria, the attack and the ...

March 24, 2023Associated Press
The Gift jason dunham
‘The Gift’ Explores the Life and Legacy of Medal of Honor Recipient Jason Dunham

"The Gift" tells the story of the first Marine to receive the Medal of Honor after the Vietnam War. ...

March 24, 2023Mac Caltrider
uss milius
US Denies Chinese Claim It Drove Away American Destroyer

The U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet said that a statement from China's Southern Theatre Command that it had fo...

March 23, 2023Associated Press
The Speed Project: Vet Team To Run in Lawless, Invite-Only Ultramarathon

For the first time, a team of (mostly) US veterans and active-duty service members will run in The S...

March 23, 2023Jenna Biter
uranium-based ammo ammunition Ukraine UK depleted uranium
A Look At the Uranium-Based Ammo the UK Will Send to Ukraine

The British defense ministry on Monday confirmed it would provide Ukraine with armor-piercing rounds containing depleted uranium.

March 23, 2023Associated Press
Zaporizhzhia Ukraine Russia
Ukraine: Russia Hits Apartments and Dorm, Killing Civilians

“Russia is shelling the city with bestial savagery,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wrote in a Telegr...

March 22, 2023Associated Press
cold brew coffee soda float
The Bitter Barista's Cold Brew Coffee Soda Float

Today, we combine the best of both worlds with this indulgent recipe, smashing together our love of coffee and ice cream with a cold brew coffee soda float!

March 21, 2023Heather Lynn
abrams tanks ukraine
US Speeds Up Abrams Tank Delivery to Ukraine War Zone

The original plan was to send Ukraine 31 of the newer M1A2 Abrams, which could have taken a year or ...

March 21, 2023Associated Press
  • About Us
  • Privacy Policy
  • Careers
Contact Us
  • Request a Correction
  • Write for Us
  • General Inquiries
© 2023 Coffee or Die Magazine. All Rights Reserved