BETHESDA – It has been several decades since retired Col. Charles McGee flew his last mission. However, the 99-year-old Tuskegee airman still talks about it as if it was yesterday.
“I fell in love with flying on my first flight; just to be able to loop, roll and spin and then come back and put my feet on the ground,” he said, while sitting in his Bethesda living room, decorated almost entirely with his medals, replicas of the planes he flew and his many awards and citations.
McGee flew 409 combat missions during World War II, the Korean conflict and Vietnam. He served in leadership positions and was the first African American to command a stateside Air Force Wing and Base.
He retired after serving 30 years at the rank of colonel but that may soon change. The U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill that authorized his honorary promotion to brigadier general on July 31. It comes after the Air Force Secretary ruled that McGee deserved the honorary promotion in March.
The House of Representatives also must approve the promotion, and President Donald Trump must sign it before his promotion is official.
“Colonel Charles McGee is a living aviation legend and an American hero,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who sponsored the bill. “He was a trailblazer who broke down racial barriers.”
Although McGee said he loved everything about serving his country and flying planes, it wasn’t always easy for him. He had to battle the enemy abroad as well as racism in both in the army and at home.
McGee was a student at the University of Illinois when he realized being drafted was in his future.
Around that time, he heard about an experimental program at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama that welcomed African Americans. He had little interest in flying but thought it would be better than trudging through mud while shooting a rifle.
After being accepted by his fellow soldiers and became a part of the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces.
Because the army was a segregated unit at that time and all airplane mechanics were whites, African Americans could not be pilots as there would not be anyone to work on their planes, he explained. But even after President Harry Truman declared the U.S. Armed Forces integrated, McGee still had setbacks due only to the color of his skin.
At that time, there was not any base housing, and the nearby towns surrounding Smokey Hill Air Force Base in Kansas would not rent or sell housing to him, so he could not live together with his wife for some time
But McGee, a Bronze Star recipient, did what he was told and became a pilot, first flying as an escort to bomber planes.
“I learned years ago anger didn’t solve the problem,” McGee replied when asked if he carried a grudge.
“My dad has no real resentment,” said his daughter, Charlene Smith. “One of the comments he told me is you can’t get anywhere with a chip on your shoulder. He endured a lot of indignation.”
When World War II ended, McGee returned by ship to America and had to exit the ship at a different place than the white soldiers did, Smith said.
Now that Congress looks to recognize McGee, his daughter is optimistic her father will receive his promotion.
“It’s due. I think for too long, folks did not know the story of the Tuskegee Airmen,” Smith said.
The father of three, grandfather of 10, great-grandfather of 12 and great-great-grandfather of one, feels blessed that his career went as well as it did. He actively flew for 27 of his 30 years in the service.
His son, Ronald, also was an Air Force pilot.
McGee turns 100 on the infamous day of Dec. 7 but has no intention of settling down. He continues to speak to young people. One of the first questions he asks them is what is the last book they read.
Then he tells them that the United States is going to land on Mars and if they work hard, they might be on that mission.
“That keeps me out of the rocking chair,” said McGee, who has lived in Montgomery County with his youngest daughter, Yvonne McGee, for 23 years.
“Our hearts are overflowing with joy that Dad’s long-overdue promotion is finally coming to fruition,” said Smith. “For a man whose entire life has been in service to God and country, attaining this from representatives of the same institution that 78 years ago wanted to limit his participation in the American Dream, is the perfect way for a grateful nation to say ‘thank you.’”