As a member of the segregated Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, pilot Charles McGee actually had to fight two battles.
“We were fighting against Hitler in Europe,” McGee, 98, said last month from his Bethesda home, “but also fighting against racism back here at home.”
McGee, who co-wrote a 2009 book with his daughter Charlene E. McGee Smith — which is now in its fifth edition — spoke about his experiences and signed copies of his book from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Monday at the Calvert Library Prince Frederick.
“I really enjoy talking to young folks and trying to give them a focus of believing and finding what they like [to do in life] and believing that they can [do it] and just going for it,” said McGee, who served 30 years in the military and was inducted into the national Aviation Hall of Fame in 2011.
“Calvert Library customers love living history, and it’s unusual that we get a real live hero to teach us about it,” Calvert Library Public Relations Coordinator Robyn Truslow said. “We are so excited that Col. McGee is coming to share his story with us.”
McGee married fellow University of Illinois classmate Frances Edwina Nelson in October 1942, and two days later he received his orders to enter Army Air Corps flight training at Tuskegee Air Field in Alabama.
His first flight was all it took to instill his love of flying.
“That first ride when you get up [in the air], roll and spin, and then come back to the ground?” McGee said of his introduction in an open cockpit bi-wing place that produced a flight of three to four Gs. “I was hooked.”
Life off the base was a different story.
“A foreign land,” McGee said of segregated Tuskegee. “We didn’t shop, eat, sleep or walk down the streets of town. There was a back way to enter and leave the airfield [but] you went through town very carefully because the sheriff wasn’t a friend, nor were the people.”
After receiving his wings in 1943, McGee was assigned to a segregated base in Italy, where he and his comrades did their best to help the war effort.
“The patrol work helped win the war because we destroyed Germany’s war-making potential and then we’d have fighter sweeps and when the German aircraft couldn’t get up we shot them on the ground,” McGee said of the 302nd Fighter Squadron, for whom he flew 136 missions. “We probably destroyed more aircraft on fighter sweeps than in aerial victories.”
Still, the black airmen were unable to participate in battles due to an antiquated study by the War College following World War I.
The report said blacks are “mentally inferior, morally inferior, so therefore no black and white units together,” McGee said, paraphrasing the report. “Oh, we could cook food, drive trucks, build roads, but nothing technical. Very much so [there was frustration] because we wanted to support the country. It didn’t change segregation, but because of segregation it didn’t mean blacks weren’t interested.”
But McGee, who logged a total of 6,300 flight hours in his career, insisted he didn’t harbor any grudges.
“I grew up learning you treat other people how you want to be treated, so going around with a chip on your shoulder or a fight never solved an issue,” he said. “Everyone would just go away mad with a bruised eye or broken nose or something like that, so my attitude was always that way.”
Black pilots were also held back by the lack of black mechanics, as it was unheard of for a white mechanic to salute a black pilot.
In the spring of 1944, the army realized its bombers needed better escorts — “Sometimes we’d put up 12 aircraft and only six would return. Well, that’s 10 American lives for each aircraft would be lost,” McGee said. And McGee’s squadron switched to P-39s in order to do the job.
“If the German aircraft tried to attack [the bombers], we’d fight them off by getting on their tails and shooting them,” McGee said of the P-39s, which were single-pilot planes with nose cannons. McGee later piloted the P-40, P-47 and P-51, which were equipped with 50-caliber guns in the wing.
During a mission in Yugoslavia in August 1944, McGee was flying his plane named “Kitten” (called so because it was his wife’s nickname, and also because McGee’s mechanic ensured the plane purred like one), when he made his only kill.
The Nazis “had Messerschmidts and Focke-Wulfs and they tried to get to our bombers,” McGee said. “I got on [an enemy plane’s] tail and he made a wrong turn and I put him in my gunsights. You’re [juking] around and he’s trying to get away, and he thought he could dive away but in this case I was able to stay with him.”
Because the gunners on the bomber planes needed to know the planes showing up weren’t German, squadrons started using identifying colors such as candy-striped, white and checkerboard. McGee’s squadron was the Red Tails.
“White pilots didn’t realize for a long time that the 302nd red-tailed pilots were black, even after the war,” McGee said. “They just knew that we didn’t leave the bombers just because we heard the German aircraft. One [of my buddies] changed his plane name to ‘By Request’ because bombers would request Red Tails so often for their mission.”
The Tuskegee Airmen, which only received that moniker in the 1970s, were immortalized in the 2012 movie “Red Tails.”
Though his fellow Red Tails had proved themselves in the air, back at home nothing changed, even after he was assigned to Smoky Hill Air Base in Kansas.
“I never got my family to Smoky Hill,” he said, “because as a black [man] I couldn’t rent any place to stay.”
McGee later served in Vietnam, where he flew more than 170 missions with the 16th Fighter Squadron, and flew 100 more missions with the 67th Fighter Bomber Squadron in the Korean War. He also commanded the 7230th Support Squadron in Italy during the Cold War.
“When I finished with Korea, I could have come home, but I wanted to go back to the Philippines where I could train P-51 pilots and enjoy my overseas tour,” McGee said of his assignment with the 44th Fighter Squadron.
His final military assignment was commander of the 1840th Fighter Squadron at the now defunct Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base near Kansas City.
He’s met former presidents Barrack Obama and Bill Clinton, and in 2006 the airmen were presented the Congressional Gold Medal by then-President George W. Bush, who also offered “a salute for all those salutes we didn’t get for our service.”
McGee, who was also awarded 25 Air Medals, two Legions of Merit, three Distinguished Flying Crosses and a Bronze Star, said he’s not bitter about the treatment he experienced in the military.
“There were a few [people] that always remained rather bitter about segregation, but there’s an old song that says to accent the positives and eliminate the negative and don’t mess with Mr. In-between, and I like that,” McGee said of the 1945 tune by Johnny Mercer & The Pied Pipers. “Look at the blue sky on occasion, don’t let these negatives be your focus. I couldn’t have written a script for the wonderful opportunities that I had through my career, but it happened. Being able to serve the country and have a wonderful career is hard to put into words. Life’s been a blessing.”