One June 6, 1944, Army Air Corps Lieutenant Charles McGee and three other members of the Tuskegee Airmen swooped down on a German radar station in southern France in their red-trailed P-51 Mustangs.
“We poked out the eyes of the Nazis,” said McGee, a retired Air Force colonel who lives in Bethesda. He explained how the Germans, therefore, couldn’t see what was coming at them by air and sea along Adolf Hitler’s Atlantic Wall in Normandy.
But getting to this point wasn’t easy. McGee and other African Americans who wanted to fight for their country had to battle prejudice in the ranks every step of the way.
“The biggest obstacle was the Army’s policy that we’d make good truck drivers or road builders, but couldn’t do anything technical,” said McGee, who flew a record 409 aerial combat missions over World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. “And also, because of segregation, they didn’t want a white airman to have to salute a black officer.”
At the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, however, African Americans were not only trained as mechanics, but also as pilots. McGee’s first flight in a PT-17 trainer was “love at first flight.”
When folks asked him how he got into aviation, McGee says, “I was avoiding the draft.”
The main mission of McGee’s squadron during World War II in Europe was to escort B-17 and B-24 bombers to their targets. Bomber crews called the “Red Tails” their “little friends,” because the Tuskegee Airmen kept the Luftwaffe off their backs and increased their chances of completing 25 missions and getting a ticket home.
McGee’s only kill of the war came when a Focke-Wulf Fw 190 pilot came at the bomber stream he was escorting into Germany. McGee said he saw his bullets rip the German’s plane cockpit apart just before it hit the ground and exploded.
“He thought he could dive away. Fortunately, I was able to turn on his tail, and he made a turn that put him right in my gunsights,” McGee said.
Later in Korea, McGee was also shot down while strafing enemy gun positions on a hillside. Enemy gunners shredded the left wing of his P-51, but he was able to get back to his base.
After the Korean War, McGee transitioned to jet fighters, flying the F-80 Shooting Star. During the Vietnam War, Lt. Col. McGee flew 100 missions in a RF-4C Phantom as the commanding officer of the 16th Tactical Air Reconnaissance Squadron, all without a scratch.
“We carried no weapons,” McGee said. “Our defense was speed.”
After holding various command positions stateside, McGee finally retired. As one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen, he is invited to dozens of aviation events every year, and has various aviation awards and trophies on display in his Bethesda home.
But his most prized award is the Congressional Gold Medal that President George W. Bush presented to him and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen, living and deceased, in the Capitol Rotunda. It’s the highest civilian award the U.S. government can give.