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Flying high: interview with Col. Charles McGee

Colonel Charles McGee Col. Charles McGee '78, USAF (retired) was a Tuskegee Airman, a select group of black World War II fighter pilots who broke stereotypes. In his extraordinarily long career, he also commanded a fighter squadron in the Philippines, a reconnaissance squadron at now-defunct Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base just south of Kansas City and holds the Air Force fighter combat record of 409 missions and 1151 combat hours. President Bush recently awarded the Airmen the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, the nation's highest civilian award.

The following is an edited interview with Col. McGee.

Q: Why did you decide to join the Army Air Corps?*
A: Well, I had a draft card and I was also in ROTC and had an idea of what a ground soldier’s life was like, so the draft wasn’t very inviting. When the opportunity came to try out for the Army Air Corps, I was able to pass the exams and the physical, and after that first ride, I was hooked. I knew I’d made the right decision. I just fell in love … It’s hard to tell somebody what it’s like when you get off the ground and loop, roll and spin and do things that you can‘t do [on] the ground.

Q: My generation sees you as a pioneer. Did you see yourself as a pioneer?
A: No, we were just young folks eager to be a part of what was going on... and be respected for what we were capable of doing and not our happenstance of birth.

Q: You could fight the Luftwaffe with machine guns. How did you fight racism and ignorance?
A: I’ve always been an optimistic person. I would look on the bright side of things and hope that change would come and things would get better. I feel a positive attitude is the best approach. You can go around with a chip on your shoulder, but someone’s going to knock it off.  A fight usually doesn’t resolve much, so it was a matter of carrying myself in a way that I hoped would be respected and give others respect as well. I always told people to keep that hope that change would come, and fortunately it did. It took some civil rights actions a little later to add to some things but we certainly changed the biases and policies that had become a part of Army policy.

It was the first time the country used a large group of blacks in a technical area. The common thought [at the time] was if you get a large group of blacks together, you’re going to have riots and such. It’s amazing to me, because the 1925 Army War College Study listed as facts that blacks were physically qualified; that their strengths should be used, but that they were mentally not capable and morally not capable. This is like closing your eyes to reality … These folks didn’t care what Aristotle said thousands of years ago: "Facts are based on careful observation.”

A lot of good talent was going to waste because somebody didn’t give them the opportunity or didn’t provide them the training. Once that was done, it made all the difference and opened some doors and opened some eyes, and certainly we have found since then that talent doesn’t come in happenstance of birth or color of skin.

Q: Tell me in broad strokes about your career.
A: The opportunities that I had were challenging and I was able to meet them. In the early years after the Air Force closed the segregated bases —it was long time before a black had a command position here in the States — I was able to show talent and ability by having a command in the Philippines in the 50s. From there, I went on to command staff school and then moved into advanced positions. I was one of the lucky guys that actively flew 27 of my 30 years. That doesn’t happen very often. But along the way were the opportunities of command and staff work that was very rewarding to me as an individual and was able to fulfill the billets of where I was assigned and was able to accomplish something for our military and for our country, and that continued throughout my career, providing leadership during the Jupiter Missile deployment in Europe in the mid 60s. You come back and you follow whatever comes and end up still doing tactical reconnaissance in Vietnam. I’m a veteran of WWII, Korea and Vietnam and hold an Air Force record in fighter combat in those three wars, so I ended up with 409 missions and 1151 combat hours while serving in command positions and staff positions along the way. I couldn’t have written a script that turned out better, so it was enjoyable to me, and I think I accomplished something for the service as I went along. Of course, it culminated with command of Richards-Gebaur Air Base south of Kansas City. And I was real thrilled—it’s like running a little city, and I’ve always enjoyed working with people and that was a great opportunity. But that offer came up at the end of my career, and they said, “Hey, your mandatory retirement date is coming up,” so I had to put it down. 

Q: I’m an aviation buff, so you’ll have to indulge me. Which airplane did you like flying the best?
A: Well, if you ask an old fighter pilot, he’s going to tell you a P-51 Mustang <laughs> It was a great little airplane. It had the altitude, speed and range that was superior to the others. They had some good ones: the P-47 was great, though that big radial engine was limited in range. But I always said, “a P-47 without oil is a P-51 without coolant.” All of them have some sort of problem, you just have to recognize what it is. But the P-51 really stands out, even today. I got a chance to go to the gathering of Mustangs … and they had seventy-some of the 51s flying there in Columbus, Ohio, last year and that was a real thrill.

Now that we’ve moved into the jet age, we’re exploiting the human being and the airplane. If we didn’t have computers, we wouldn’t be flying commercially and militarily like we are. So it’s a new day out there. Fortunately, my career saw the piston engine develop and move into the jet age.

Q: Why did you think getting a college degree was important after retirement?
A: Well, education is extremely important, whether you use it or not. It brings out talent and capability that’s latent and if you don’t get the education, sometimes you don’t know that it’s there. Education is a combination of providing growth and opportunities for the individual. I’ve always looked at it as when the individual grows, so does our community and our country. It’s like the old saying, The chain is only as strong as its weakest link. I tell youngsters we haven’t solved all of our problems: reentry from space, the space plane, fuels and materials for the airframe to stand the heat.  It takes education to be able to find the individuals with the skills that will help us solve those problems. I tell youngsters we’re going to Mars. They’re making plans for it now. Guess who is going? It’s not the folks that are planning the trip, it’s some youngster sitting in high school that 15 years from now is going to make the trip [to Mars].

Q: Why did you choose Columbia College?
A: Good school! Timing was right, location was right. I retired from the base and worked with industry for a bit. I retired in January ’73 and worked in Kansas City with a business. Throughout my service career, wherever I had a chance to take additional courses, or night courses, I did. I had done a number of studies as I moved around and I decided it was just time to put them all together and go on and get the degree. The courses that were offered were right in line with where I was and I became an alum.

The instructors were excellent; that’s a challenge to me, too, when you have folks that push you enough to do well and get the most out of a course, and that was certainly my experience at Columbia College. I’m proud to be a graduate on the roll of Columbia College. It’s good to see what’s going on and the growth still taking place and what that means.

Q: You’re active in the nonprofit Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. (TAI)
A: I was president of TAI from 1983-85 and again from 1998-2002. I had two one-year terms and two two-year terms. I’m still active in membership of new chapters. The organization didn’t organize until 1972. I was on the initial board as we organized, realizing that besides our camaraderie and getting together, it was important to also provide motivation for our young people. Our focus is on aviation and space careers because we realize there’s still a need for minority participation in the field. We get talking about our school systems--sometimes it’s not always money that helps; sometimes it’s the teachers that are willing to put a little spark in the kids eyes and minds on what’s needed for the future and what kinds of opportunities that can grow into. And we realize that that’s certainly needed in the math, science and aviation areas, so that’s our focus. We have a good time; our numbers are thinning, but our goal is mentoring our young people to not only know the history, but to challenge them for the future.

(Before he was a pilot, McGee was a Boy Scout and lists the experience as a life highpoint; another was flying into a second sunset.)
If everyone lived by the scout oath and laws, we could reduce our police force and we would be quite a nation of people. I like the oath: “On my honor I will do my best/To do my duty to God and my country/and to obey the Scout Law; /To help other people at all times;/To keep myself physically strong,/mentally awake, and morally straight" and then, those 12 scout laws, to and understand them and live by them…you can’t beat it. I wish more people would try it.

Back in the day (we can’t do it now because it costs so much) at the end of the day, if you wanted to go flying and there was a plane free, and you needed to get some hours in or night time, you just did it. To take off at sunset, and just in a few minutes climb up to 38,000, 40,000 feet, to be able to literally see the sunset a second time, and then see that big canopy of stars come out overhead … You can’t pass that thrilling feeling on to someone else, you have to experience it for yourself. The best way I can express it is it makes you really realize that we human beings are only a very small speck in a mighty grand universe.

Q: What would you give as advice to young soldiers, of any color?
A: Keep yourselves in good physical shape. Treat others like you would expect to be treated. And in the leadership role that I have espoused to others, it isn’t the rank on your shoulders that really speaks, it’s you. And your actions should gain the respect of those under you. And if you represent yourself in that way, you don’t have a problem later. That’s pretty much my story.

Q: Do you see any parallels in society today to the Airmen?
A: We’ve got a very interesting situation going on with the politics of the country. The attitudes some people have about a woman being in Hillary Clinton’s position, and Barack Obama being in his position still makes you realize we’ve got a long way to go.  And there are still a lot of biases out there, a lot of skepticism and sometime it’s got to be overcome.

Q: Can I have your autograph?
A: <Laughs> Sure.

*The Air Force was created in 1947.