GALLIPOLIS, Ohio — As the nation watched President Donald J. Trump recognize Retired Brigadier General Charles McGee during his State of the Union address on Tuesday, in Gallia County, Ohio, McGee was remembered for his visit to the storied Emancipation Proclamation celebration in 2004.
McGee, 100, was born in Cleveland, Ohio and is one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. The Tuskegee Airmen were African-American military pilots during World War II and were the first African-American military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps, a precursor to the U.S. Air Force. The pilots trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. McGee’s service stretched into the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Turning 100 hasn’t slowed McGee down, having also participated in the coin toss at the recent Super Bowl, representing World War II veterans. In addition, this month, NASA also honored McGee for his accomplishments. He noted his 100th birthday by reportedly flying a private jet between Frederick, Md. and Dover Air Force Base in Delaware in December.
James Oiler, commander of the Cadot-Blessing Camp 126 of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, met McGee when he delivered a speech at that Emancipation Proclamation celebration in 2004. Oiler stated then, and now, that meeting McGee was a “great honor.”
Oiler wrote a column about the experience for Ohio Valley Publishing (OVP) in 2004 and stated, “Having Col. McGee here in Gallia County was indeed an honor and to meet him and listen to his mild-mannered delivery of his address at the celebration was truly one of the most memorable moments of my life. Shaking hands with Col. McGee was indeed ‘shaking hands with history.’”
Oiler noted McGee’s story, “Tuskegee Airman, Biography of Charles E. McGee: Air Force Fighter Combat Record Holder,” was written by his daughter, Dr. Charlene McGee Smith, who was also at the Emancipation Celebration that year. Oiler added, McGee autographed his copy of Smith’s book about her father’s life.
A portion of Oiler’s submission to OVP concerning McGee’s background and visit in 2004 appears below:
McGee joined the Army Air Corps in October 1942 and was sent to Tuskegee, Ala. where he received his Silver Wings as a single engine pilot and commission as a second lieutenant in June 1943 as a graduating member of the Class 43-F Tuskegee Army Airfield.
Charles was sent to Italy and the battle of North Africa as a member of the famed 332nd fighter squadron, dubbed the ‘Red Tails.’ His first missions consisted of patrolling along the northern coast of Africa due to the fact that ‘black pilots were really not able to perform in combat…’
Later, the 332nd was assigned bomber escort duty and the Allies never lost a bomber to enemy planes while the 332nd was performing the escorts.
Charles flew 136 missions and is credited with the shooting down of a German FW-190, along with other air victories. The black pilots were segregated from the white pilots and were kept in camps several miles apart, but the irony of this is that the 332nd group was actually requested by the U.S. bomber squadrons due to their records.
One U.S. bomber pilot is quoted to have said at a mission briefing, ‘If I have to go to Berlin and risk the lives of my crew I want the 332nd to take me to Berlin and back.’
Upon the return home from Italy, while coming down the gangplank, there was a sign directing black pilots one way and the white pilots another. Charles had to endure many incidences of prejudice from the country that he had just fought to preserve.
He became an instructor at Tuskegee Airfield and was stationed at several bases in the U.S., all the time having problems with housing for his family and having to leave them alone for long periods. The Korean Conflict broke out and of course, Charles was back in the pilot’s seat.
He flew the P-39, P-47 and P-51 planes with the 332nd in World War II and flew the F-51, strafing and bombing North Korean targets. Returning home was not much different than before and he still experienced difficulties with family housing and promotions.
Later, during the Vietnam War, he once again left the safety of the U.S. and took the pilot’s seat. He flew with the 16th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron in Vietnam and once again distinguished himself as a great pilot.
Charles holds the U.S. Air Force record for having the most combat missions of any pilot in a three-war period. He endured not only the wrath of the enemies but the prejudice of his own country towards blacks and deserves much credit for helping in challenging racial barriers in the military and broadening the foundation for the Civil Rights movement.
McGee’s awards include the Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster, Distinguished Flying Cross with two clusters, Bronze Star Air Medal with 25 clusters, Army and Air Force Commendation Medal with cluster. Presidential Unit Citation and several other campaign and service ribbons.
In addition, as reported by the U.S. Air Force last week, on Feb. 4, McGee, was promoted to brigadier general by President Trump.
During his State of the Union speech, the president singled out McGee, who was sitting alongside his great-grandson Iain Lanphier, stating, “General McGee, our nation salutes you. Thank you, sir.”
Beth Sergent contributed to this article.