“We dreamed of being pilots as boys but were told it was not possible. Through faith and determination, we overcame enormous obstacles.”
Advertisement

Charles McGee, one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen, the first all-Black unit of the WWII Army Air Forces, died Sunday morning in his sleep at his home in Bethesda, Maryland. He was 102 years old.

"McGee was a living legend known for his kind-hearted, and humble nature, who saw positivity at every turn," his family said in a statement. "He spent the last half century inspiring future generations to pursue careers in aviation, but equally important, he encouraged others to be the best they could be, to follow their dreams, and to persevere through all challenges."

Charles Edward McGee was born December 7, 1919, in Cleveland, Ohio. He left the University of Illinois at the onset of WWII to join the Army Air Corps' new program for Black soldiers seeking to train as pilots and was sent to the Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama for flight training in October 1942.  He graduated in June 1943 and joined the all-Black 332nd Fighter Group, known as the "Red Tails," in early 1944.  

Col. Charles McGee
Credit: New York Daily News Archive/Getty Images

More than 900 men trained at Tuskegee from 1940 to 1946. About 450 deployed overseas and 150 lost their lives during that period.

"You could say that one of the things we were fighting for was equality," McGee told The Associated Press in 1995. "Equality of opportunity. We knew we had the same skills, or better."

McGee remained in the Army Air Corps—later the U.S. Air Force—and served for 30 years. According to the National Aviation Hall of Fame, his 409 aerial fighter combat missions in three wars (WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War) are the most in U.S. history.

McGee retired as a colonel in the Air Force in 1973, then earned a college degree in business administration and worked as a business executive. He received numerous accolades throughout his career, including the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007.

The pioneering airman is survived by three children, 10 grandchildren, 14 great grandchildren, and one great-great grandchild. His wife of more than 50 years, Frances, died in 1994.

In an essay for Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, McGee wrote that he was often asked how the Tuskegee Airmen were so successful in combat.

"I would say it was because of our courage and perseverance," he wrote. "We dreamed of being pilots as boys but were told it was not possible. Through faith and determination, we overcame enormous obstacles. This is a lesson that all young people need to hear."

Rest in peace, Mr. McGee. Thank you for your service.