Brigade Gen. Charles McGee, one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen who served in three wars and whose life work included bringing awareness to Black pilots and their fight against racism, has died. He was 102 years old.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III confirmed McGee’s death to the New York Times. “Today, we lost an American hero,” Austin said in a statement to Reuters. “While I am saddened by his loss, I’m also incredibly grateful for his sacrifice, his legacy, and his character.”
“McGee was a living legend known for his kind-hearted and humble nature, who saw positivity at every turn,” his family added in the statement to CNN. “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.”
McGee was born on Dec. 7, 1919, in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1942, at 23, he was called into service. He became a part of a pioneering all-Black group of fighter aviators in World War II known as the Tuskegee Airmen, formed after the military slowly began to integrate in the 1940s.
The outlet reported that he spent the next three decades as an Air Force pilot during the North Korea and Vietnam wars, and retired about 50 years ago.
The soldier completed 409 air combat missions and conquered racism and segregation during his tenure in the military. “Being brought up, they say African-American or Black, but we’re American, and our country was at war,” McGee said about his experience in a 2016 interview.
“We were just as interested in supporting that effort as anybody else at that time, and so we turned our back on the fact that there was segregation, if you will, and took advantage of the opportunity to prove that we can fly airplanes,” he added.
The success of the Tuskegee Airmen later influenced then President Harry Truman to desegregate the armed forces in 1948, and also helped lay the path for the civil rights movement.
After his military career, McGee worked as a business executive and an airport manager in Kansas City, Missouri. He also served as president of the Tuskegee Airmen Association. McGee received numerous awards, including being given the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007, and inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio, in 2011.
The veteran is reportedly survived by his three children, 10 grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren, and a great-great-grandchild. His wife, Frances, preceded him in death in 1994.
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