McGee died in his sleep at his home in Bethesda, Maryland, said his son, Ron McGee.
Following the United States' entry into World War II, McGee left the University of Illinois to participate in an experimental program for black soldiers seeking to train as pilots after the Army Air Corps was forced to admit African Americans. In October 1942, he was sent to the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama for flight training, according to his biography on the National Aviation Hall of Fame website.
Today we lost an American hero. Charles McGee, Brigadier General and one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airman, died at the age of 102. Although I am sorry for his loss, I am also incredibly grateful for his sacrifice, his legacy, and his character. Rest in peace, General. pic.twitter.com/3GLNbfRHs7- Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III (@SecDef) January 16, 2022
"One could say that one of the things we fought for was equality," he told The Associated Press in a 1995 interview. "Equal opportunities. We knew we had the same skills, or better. "
McGee graduated from flying school in June 1943 and joined in early 1944 the all-black 332nd Fighter Group, known as the "Red Tails". He flew 136 missions as the group accompanied bombers over Europe.
More than 900 men trained in Tuskegee from 1940 to 1946. About 450 were sent abroad and 150 lost their lives in training or combat.
In recent years, the Tuskegee Airmen have been the subject of books, movies, and documentaries that highlight their courage in the air and the doubts they encountered on earth because of their race. In 2007, a congressional gold medal, the highest civilian award from Congress, was issued in recognition of their "unique military record that inspired revolutionary reforms in the armed forces."
McGee remained in the Army Air Corps, later the US Air Force, and served for 30 years. He flew low-level bombing and bombing missions during the Korean War and returned to fight again during the Vietnam War. The National Aviation Hall of Fame says his 409 air combat missions in three wars remain a record.
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He retired as a colonel in the Air Force in 1973, then took a college degree in business administration and worked as a business manager. He was awarded an honorary commission that promoted him to a one-star rank as a brigadier general when he turned 100. Another event marked his centenary: He flew a private jet between Frederick, Maryland and Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
In 2020, McGee received a standing ovation from members of Congress when he was introduced by President Donald Trump during his State of the Union speech.
In addition to encouraging young men and women to pursue careers in aviation, McGee was a source of information on the Tuskegee Airmen and offered a unique perspective on race conditions in the era through the nonprofit aviation training organization.
"At the time of the war, the idea of an entirely African-American flight squadron was radical and offensive to many," McGee wrote in an essay for the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
The prevailing view was that blacks did not possess the intelligence or courage to be military pilots. A general even wrote, "The Negro type does not have the right reflexes to make a first-class fighter pilot." Tuskegee Airmen certainly proved that men like him were wrong. "
Charles Edward McGee was born on December 7, 1919 in Cleveland, the son of a minister who also worked as a teacher and social worker and was a military chaplain. He graduated from high school in Chicago in 1938.
The survivors include daughters Charlene McGee Smith and Yvonne McGee, 10 grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren and a great-great-grandchild. His wife of more than 50 years, Frances, died in 1994.
A family statement described McGee as "a living legend known for his kind-hearted and humble nature, who saw positivity at every turn."
In tweets Sunday in honor of McGee, both Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III called him an American hero.
"Although I'm sorry for his loss, I'm also incredibly grateful for his sacrifice, his legacy, and his character. Rest in peace, General," Austin wrote.
In his Smithsonian essay, McGee wrote that he was often asked why 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 that was not possible. Through faith and determination, we overcame enormous obstacles. This is a lesson that all young people need to hear."
He added: "I am most proud of my work as a Tuskegee Airman who helped bring down racial barriers and defeat the Nazis."
Associated Press writer Daisy Nguyen contributed to this report.
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