Brig. Gen. Charles McGee, a college engineering student who became one of the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, died in his sleep Sunday morning, Jan. 16, his family said in a statement.
He was 102 years old and was promoted to brigadier general by President Trump in 2020.
“Today, we lost an American hero,” Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said on Twitter. “While I am saddened by his loss, I’m also incredibly grateful for his sacrifice, his legacy, and his character. Rest in peace, General,” Mr. Austin added.
As a young soldier in the early days of the U.S. entry into World War II, McGee learned about an Army Air Corps program in Tuskegee, Alabama, that trained Black pilots.
“I heard about the aviation opportunity and passed the exams,” he told Department of Defense News in an interview last year. “After my first flight in a PT-17 — to be able to go up there and loop roll and spin and come back and put your feet on the ground — I was hooked! Never have I forgotten that first day.”
The Tuskegee Airmen, whose aircraft had tails painted a distinctive red that earned them the nickname “Red Tails,” escorted bombers over Germany, Austria, and the Balkans. On August 23, 1944, McGee shot down a Nazi aircraft when he engaged a Luftwaffe formation over Czechoslovakia, records indicate.
McGee’s successes in the war — along with those of his Tuskegee Airmen colleagues — helped pave the way for the armed forces to integrate.
At the time, however, the aviator said changing society was not uppermost in his thinking.
“We didn’t go South to say we’re going to go set the world on fire,” the DoD article quoted Gen. McGee as saying. “For myself, or [the] country to come out of 10 years of depression, the declaration of war to support our allies in Europe — it didn’t change segregation, but it changed opportunity. The need opened that door.”
In the 2021 interview, the brigadier general explained his understanding of freedom: “Freedom provided the opportunity to serve and prove that it’s not just an idea for somebody to tell you can’t do something — it also requires the endeavor from yourself, that yes I can. And it’s in freedom that you get the opportunity to prove that you have abilities. They can be developed to not only help you as an individual, but what it means in the area of business, jobs and opportunities — you can’t beat it. Freedom is the key to providing such opportunity for one and all.”
After World War II ended, McGee remained in the military, transitioning to the United States Air Force, as the Army Air Corps had been reconstituted. He was a fighter pilot during the Korean War, completing 100 missions and earning a promotion to major as well as the Distinguished Flying Cross.
He was a lieutenant colonel during the Vietnam war, where he flew 172 photo-reconnaissance missions and retired from military service as a full colonel in 1973.
Five years later, he completed his college degree more than 30 years after his first enrollment at the University of Illinois.
He became the director of the Kansas City airport and traveled the country as a motivational speaker.
The 2012 film “Red Tails,” produced by George Lucas of “Star Wars” fame, utilized McGee as a consultant.
During Super Bowl LIV, he was one of four centenarian veterans of World War II to participate in the coin flip at the start of the game. On Feb. 4, 2020, two days after that event, he was noted during the State of the Union address with his promotion to brigadier general.
He was born in Cleveland on Dec. 7, 1919, some 22 years before that date would be memorialized as “Pearl Harbor Day.”
His grandfather had been a slave and his father had served as a U.S. Army chaplain in both World War I and World War II.
In his motivational speeches, McGee noted the promise of a nation that sent him into the air as a pilot at a time when segregation was still widespread.
“America is the greatest nation on Earth because of the values that we like to sustain,” he said in that 2021 interview.
He is survived by three children, numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren, media reports indicate.
Funeral details have not yet been announced.