Charles McGee, a “Red Tail” pilot with a celebrated career in the Air Force and beyond, has been an inspiration to thousands, speaking to people of all ages about his experience as a Tuskegee Airman and sharing life lessons that can impact people of all walks of life. The Brig. Gen. Charles McGee and Don Hinz Theater at the Henry B. Tippie National Aviation Education Center is named in honor of Brigadier General Charles McGee, a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, and Donald E. Hinz, a Commemorative Air Force (CAF) member singularly devoted to telling the story of America’s first black military aviation unit.
McGee was born in Cleveland, Ohio on Dec. 7, 1919, to Lewis Allen and Ruth Elizabeth Lewis McGee, who died shortly after the birth of his sister. His father was, at times, a teacher, social worker and Methodist minister, jobs that led to frequent moves. McGee spent his childhood in Ohio, Illinois and Iowa. He was a Boy Scout growing up, earning the prestigious rank of Eagle Scout on July 9, 1940.
On the afternoon of his 22nd birthday, Dec. 7, 1941, McGee heard the news about Pearl Harbor that shocked the entire world and plunged the U.S. into World War II against Japan and Germany. Although he had received his draft card in 1940, he now knew that his call to service would be imminent.
While in college at the University of Illinois, he learned there was going to be an opportunity for blacks to become military pilots, so he took the test and passed. Later, McGee received his orders, and was sworn into the enlisted reserves to prepare to become an Army Air Corps aviation cadet. He arrived at Tuskegee Army Airfield on Nov. 24, 1942. McGee and his newlywed wife, Francis, both from the North, had to abruptly forge a new life in the deeply segregated South. The transition was stark.
McGee earned his wings and commission as a 2nd Lieutenant on June 30, 1943, class 43-F. McGee was assigned to the 302nd Fighter Squadron which was sent to Selfridge Army Airfield in Michigan for combat training. On Dec. 25, the group departed for the European Theater of the War. After 11 months, he had flown 136 fighter combat missions. McGee returned to Tuskegee and became an instructor for pilots for the North American B-25 Mitchell bomber, for the 477th Bombardment Group training to enter the Pacific Theater of the War.
McGee stayed in the military for 30 years. He became a command pilot with over 6,000 total flight hours, 1,151 of those in combat. He flew as a fighter pilot in three major military conflicts, completing 409 missions for the Army Air Corps and Air Force. He is one of the few fighter pilots who flew 100 or more combat missions in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
He commanded the 44th Fighter Bomber Squadron in the Philippines from 1951-53, the 7230th Support Squadron in Italy from 1961-63, the 16th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron from 1967-68 in Vietnam, and was the wing and base commander of the Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base in Missouri in 1972.
Upon his retirement from the United States Air Force on Jan. 31, 1973, then Colonel McGee amassed many awards for his service and valor. These include the Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster, Distinguished Flying Cross with two clusters, Bronze Star, Air Medal with 25 clusters, Army Commendation Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal with cluster, Presidential Unit Citation, Korean Presidential Unit Citation, the Hellenic Republic WWII Commemorative Medal, the French Legion of Honor, and several campaign and service ribbons. In 2007, McGee and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen were presented with the Congressional Gold Medal by President George W. Bush. In 2011, he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
With the approval from the Department of the Air Force, Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Rep. Anthony Brown sponsored a bipartisan amendment, for McGee’s honorary promotion to Brigadier General, to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020. It was passed on Dec. 20, 2019 and on Feb. 4, 2020 McGee was officially pinned Brigadier General in a White House ceremony.