Today’s Flight Plan
Imagine for a moment what it was like to be a fighter pilot during WWII. Especially in the European Theatre, any Allied Pilot assuredly faced Nazi pilots were quite skilled in aircraft that were capable and advanced.
If that wasn’t challenging and dangerous enough, add to it racial tensions and the constant and near undeviating opinion of others that you were inferior and flawed as a human being.
This is what many of the Tuskegee Airmen faced in WWII. Not only were they facing a high mortality rate as pilots in the Air Corps, but they were facing racism as well. Why? The Tuskegee Airmen are all African American pilots.
Known also as the ‘Red Tails’, because their aircraft were painted with a Red Tail, this outfit of ‘inferior pilots’ ended up proving everyone wrong. They flew 179 bomber escort missions, with a good record of protection, losing bombers on only seven missions and a total of only 27, compared to an average of 46 among other 15AF P-51 groups. (Wikipedia)
In this episode, we hear from one of the few remaining Tuskegee Airmen alive today. His name is Charles McGee. Not only did he fight during WWII, but he also fought during the Korea and Vietnam Wars. He holds the record for the most combat mission in the US Air Force and 109.
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Charles McGee (Wiki)
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Chris: Welcome to another short 8-point roll episode of AviatorCast. These are special episodes in celebration of National Aviation Day, and on this particular episode, we have Charles McGee. Now this isn’t my own personal interview but it is an interview with him from another interviewer who talks to him in front of one of the Red Tails. You guys may know the Red Tails as the P-51s that fought in World War II and the guys that flew those were called the Tuskegee Airmen, and the Tuskegee Airmen are famous for the fact that not only did they not lose any aircraft that they were in charge of when they were protecting bombers, but they are most notably African-American pilots who face a lot more challenges than just those challenges of combat because of course back in that day, there were still segregation and a lot of other things going on. And so these guys had to fight those racial pressures as well. So it’s very, very, very cool to see and hear from a real Tuskegee Airman, someone that had been there and done that.
Now, Charles is a very special guy because he also ended up holding the record for the most combat missions of any pilot from my understanding. Now that’s probably just you as pilots, I’m not sure if that’s all pilots. But this guy has flown a ton of combat missions, not only World War II but Korea and the Vietnam War. Very top notch guy. Just so, so cool. So I hope you guys enjoy this. This is from again an interview with him in front of a Red Tail P-51D there at Oshkosh. So I hope you guys enjoy. Here we go, Charles McGee.
David: Good afternoon ladies and gentleman, I’m David Hartman. This is such a privilege to be with you here this beautiful place, this wonderful plaza to remember to honor great aviators, veterans, current active duty aviators, and the civilians. The point of all these is to honor those who have served our country and to maintain all this history. And you all are part of this and we’re grateful that we’re here and again it’s a privilege for me to be a part of this. Please welcome Doug Rosendahl. If you look at this airplane, this is a Doug Rosendahl production. Doug.
Doug: This is a new work of a lot of volunteers and a lot of donors over a lot of years to make the Rosendahl Squadron and the Red Tail Project.
David: When did you start this project?
Doug: The genesis of the Tuskegee Airmen P-51 is that it was a gate guard on Boston State College back in the 60s and they decided that they needed to move it. So the University put it up for auction and the airplane was bought for 1 dollar. And the folks at the university weren’t very happy about that so they insisted that the owner remove the airplane within 24 hours and the only choice he had was to saw the wings off outward of the landing gear, put the tailwheel in a pick-up truck and tow it down the interstate to Billings, Montana where it languished for several years. Ultimately, it was donated to the Commemorative Air Force and ultimately it was assigned to the Minnesota Wing. The decision was made to restore the airplane as a Red Tail because the Red Tails escorted the 310th Bomb Squadron and 380th Bomb Group which is our B-25 Miss Mitchell, so we thought it would be good to have a Mustang in Red Tail colors escorting our B-25.
But the project languished until the late 1990s when a guy named Don Hines, he was a visionary leader and a great, great guy, former naval aviator, and attended our airport he saw this project and he believed in it and he took it on, and pretty soon thereafter at 2001 we had a flying airplane. But sadly Don was killed in this airplane in 2004 in a tragic power loss and suffered fatal injuries. And so we started over in 2004. As we were doing that, there was a lot of talk about the Tuskegee Airmen story and it really is about rising above adversity, and that’s what they did, and that’s what… We used the example of the Tuskegee Airmen to take a pile of busted up airplanes and put it back together again in five years and a million dollars.
But Don always had a bigger plan, and that plan was that we would use this airplane as a tool to tell a story that would inspire young people to rise above the adversity that they find in their lives, and to accomplish that, we had this vision to build a travelling exhibit which has been here at Oshkosh several times. How many people have seen the Rise Above exhibit? For those of you who have, you know what it’s about. The flying instructor handbook says that the definition of learning is a change of behavior as a result of experience and we wanted to use this story to create an experience for young people that would cause them to change their behavior and hopefully rise above the adversity they find in their lives.
David: How many hours on this airplane?
Doug: This airplane has been flying since 2001, about 800 hours, about 500 of that since the accident.
David: And in your travelling exhibition, where do you go?
Doug: We go all over the country right now, the exhibits en route from Seattle. We brought this airplane in Hillsboro, Oregon last weekend, and we brought it just to be here in front of you folks and to be here with Charles, because he’s been such a great supporter of us for so many years. So we’ll pretty much do whatever we have to do including fly from Hillsboro, Oregon to be here so we could use this tool to tell a story with Charles.
David: Great. Doug Rosendahl, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you Doug. Alright, Charles McGee, you heard a little bit in the video that we just started. Currently retired, United States Air Force. He was born December 7th, 1919 in Cleveland, Ohio. He was a Boy Scout, he made Eagle, graduated from high school number nine in his class of 436. Two years in the college in the University of Illinois. He enlisted in the US Army Air Force. Became a member as you know of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the Red Tails. He earned his pilot wings in June of ‘43. With the 332nd fighter group, he flew the P-47, the P-39 and the P-51 Mustang, escorted B-24s and B-17s over Germany, Austria and the Balkans.
He shot down a pack of 190 before he came down to the States as an instructor. In Europe, he flew 137 combat missions. In the Korean War, he flew 100 missions in the P-51 Mustang. And then the Vietnam Conflict, another 172 missions in the RF-4 Phantom. In the history of the United States Air Force, Colonel McGee holds the record for flying the most combat fighter missions in three wars, World War II, Korea and Vietnamen. 409. He retired after commanding at many levels. He retired in ‘73. Of course, he is highly decorated. A recipient, among others, of the distinguished Fly Across, Bronze Star, congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award. In 2011, he was inducted in the National Aviation Hall of Fame. Please welcome Colonel Charles McGee.
Charles: Thank you.
David: Charles, I just kind of said that you were born on December 7th in 1919. Japan of course attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7 1941 which was your 22nd birthday. What was the mood of the country before Pearl Harbor Day, the attack, and how did that mood, attitude in the country changed after Pearl Harbor?
Charles: That’s an important question because the country had come out of 10 years of depression. Everybody was interested in the jobs that they build up industry to support our military folks and everyone was interested in being a part of it. But the black population was faced with a lot of restrictions. In fact, to get into aviation, it stems back to a 1925 army war college study where they determined physical capable yes, mentally no, inferior. Morally, inferior. Just all the facts to say that they wouldn’t make good soldiers. So we could do service work, dig ditches, build roads, drive trucks, but do anything technical, not possible. And they forwarded this study to Washington for future mobilization plans and Washington bought it. So there was a tough road to face when 1939-40 we decided to help our allies in Europe.
David: Well that brings the question of course. Given what was going on at the time, the rampant racism, Jim Crow laws, injustice, segregation, and the Pentagon in this faulty science that you just described, you knew all about that racism of course first hand. So where did it come from in you and your colleagues to be able to say I will not only join to defend the country but I’m going to join and fight racism. What did it take inside you to do that?
Charles: Well, I think number one and I think the first thing that we were all thankful, that we had parents and grandparents that said go to high school, go to college, get an education, and that was a requirement when the war broke out, to have that education, so that was important. In my own kind of growing up, I didn’t learn, I guess you might say from a religious point of view, treat your neighbors yourself as you want to be treated. A little later in my years I was glad to be a Boy Scout and I still say that if we all live by that Scout Oath from those 12 Scout Laws, you know, trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. If everybody lived by those laws, we’d have quite a different country. But that was the type of thing that helped me. I realized fighting doesn’t solve an issue. You bruised him and you’re still mad at each other. So it takes a little different way of living and I think that’s what sustained the majority of those that became a part of this first experiment because the army said we studied and we know it isn’t going to work.
David: So that was the term, they called it the experiment.
Charles: Exactly. The experiment was authorizing the 99th Pursuit Squadron. Of course the fine print to maintain segregation said all of the necessary support so besides 32 pilots, that’s a couple hundred technicians, mechanics and of course we needed medical, communications and supply and a couple hundred people, because they insisted on segregation. That 99th went into combat, still segregated overseas but attached to white groups but not at the same base.
David: How were treated when you first arrived at Tuskegee in that whole training period?
Charles: If it wasn’t Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, things would be quite different we were not welcome in the city and town of Tuskegee. The sheriff wasn’t a friend, folks. We went through town very carefully. But Tuskegee Institute was able to take care of us while they build their airfield. And that’s an interesting part of this circumstance because the army told the graduates of the civilian pilot training school they couldn’t use a black pilot because they didn’t have any black mechanics. That’s very interesting. So really, now called Tuskegee Airmen, we weren’t called Tuskegee Airmen then. We’re mechanics trained at technical school Chanute Field, Rantoul, Illinois. I’m in school that’s 14 miles away and that’s how I learned about the flying and applied for the flight program and was accepted, waited around to be called, but that’s where it started. Well, 99th is going to need replacement so training continued, and three additional single engine fighter squadrons were trained and then later even four squadrons for the medium bomber and that’s B-25. That’s another part of the story.
David: You and your colleagues, let’s say first year before, what was the group attitude amongst all of you. Did they share your kind of solid positive reverential attitude that you had? Did all the guys kind of reflect that?
Charles: Well I think the majority did. There were those who are still very upset over segregation and that kind of affected their attitude which you could expect for some, but by and large, interested in taking advantage of this opportunity. Some had dreamed of being pilots from the time they were little. I had never been around an aircraft but I would say after my first ride, I knew I had made the right decision. I was avoiding the draft.
David: So you trained and you soloed. What do you recall January 24, 1943? What do you recall about what how you felt that day when the instructor climbed out, you stayed, and soloed.
Charles: It was a great feeling and I remember pointing out and you could see the airfield over there and that’s how the Tuskegee Airmen Airfield came about. Well, two things to complete that story. Although we can’t fly in army policy, a law was passed to allow the army to contract the primary phase of training to a civilian pilot training school. Tuskegee Institute had an excellent program. They applied and got the contract and although the army said it’s not going to be successful, my instructor in the PT-17 was a black pilot from Tuskegee Institute Civilian Pilot Training Program. The mechanics did well, and that’s where the army said “Oh, we need an airfield for pilot training.” There were airfields all around the country but they found 4 million dollars to build Tuskegee Airmen Airfield about 7 miles north the city of Tuskegee and that’s what we were looking at on that first ride. And he said “You see the airfield over there?” I’m sure I said yes but folks, I’m not sure we’re seeing at that time but fortunate as I say, I just knew I had made the right decision to be able to loop, roll, spin, come back, put your feet on the ground. Can’t beat it.
David: Through the ’43 of course your wings, what’s that recollection?
Charles: Well that was a great day to be able to complete the training, to receive those silver army air corps wings and to also be commissioned. So we were treated by the women air force pilots and they helped our country and were sent home after two years. Even though segregation exists and we were commissioned, carried those wings into service and so it’s a little different although the attitudes in many respects hadn’t changed.
David: July 4, ’44, you arrived across the Atlantic. Where did you start across the Atlantic? Which base?
Charles: We shift from our training site in Selfridge Field, Michigan December of ’43 going down to Virginia where the boats were loaded and took us over and we went directly to Italy each of the squadrons on a different boat just crossing the Atlantic.
David: Now what airplane were you flying then and where was your squadron?
Charles: Well, we never trained in P-40 but they said you’re going to fly the P-39. So one of the boats went directly to Naples, we landed in Toronto Bay and we took over the mountainside to the Naples area where we picked up our P-39s and begin patrolling Naples Harbor, waterways which is just below Rome.
David: The word kitten. Do you want to go here? The word kitten?
Charles: Oh, Kitten was wife’s nickname so we painted that on and I said put it on both sides because I always said my crew chief kept the engine purring like a kitten so it has a double meaning for me.
David: So how long did you fly the P-39?
Charles: Well, I say we got over in January of ’44, it was about the April timeframe. Our bombers had come out in North Africa firing from Southern Italy to Germany’s war-making potential. Though I had enough guns on the 17s and 24s to protect them but the German Air Force have a different story. So they decided to provide additional escort, and they pull four groups from 12 tactical air force, we moved over to the major site of Italy and picked up both P-47 Thunderbolts about the April timeframe of ’44 to begin escorting the B-17s and B-24s.
David: So your transitions right then in Italy from the 39 to the P-40?
Charles: No. Only the 99th was still flying P-40s attached to white groups. We were doing interdiction and ground support. We begin escort work with the P-47. Back then, you read the tech order and sat in the cockpit and found the switches. I even said if the crew chief can start it, I can fly it.
David: What were your typical missions in the P-47?
Charles: Typical mission. We would put up 16 aircrafts, have a rendezvous point with the assigned bomber group and proceed with them. Sometimes we had penetration escorts. Sometimes we were able to stay with them all the way through the mission. So dependent on how far away. Plus one of the distant targets and you may not stay with them all the way, so it depended on the assignment that you were given.
David: At what point did the Mustang become part of the equation?
Charles: The famous Mustang, that always qualify with the Rolls Royce Merlin engine. July 1st, all of the four fighter groups have the P-51 Mustang and we preferred that because the P-47 was excellent, roaming cockpit, the extra pair of guns, with that big radio nose is supercharging limited its altitude and range. So the P-51 gave us an aircraft that we could operate from the ground at 35,000 feet, good range, good speed, it was a premier aircraft for the task that we had to do.
David: So what were your mission charges or orders. Was it just to protect the bombers or was it to attack the Luftwaffe or both?
Charles: Well, it was somewhat both but in our leadership and sometimes those instructions may have been different from those who are flying out of Air Force, but our mission was to help save the bomber crews because each time a bomber went down, it could be lost. And so our leadership Glen Davis Jr. became our commander. Well he said ____ is leaving the assignment because we hear that there were foreign aircraft in there and you want to go get a victory. If they attacked the bombers we were escorting, we fought them off. If they didn’t, well we just said “Well they live another day.”
David: What were the typical Mustang missions? How long were they? How cold did it get up there?
Charles: Well, the undercuff aren’t quite what they are today for sure but the higher it went, the colder it got. But I would say the average mission for us in escort was four hours to 4:15 or 4:30. Longest mission I flew in ’51, six hours, but it was a special mission and not flying at high cruise, burning fuel very rapidly. But we also, whether it’s weather or that kind of case in the bombers… We were given what we call fighter sweeps and probably throughout the war period from that April timeframe in ’44 to the end of the war in ’45, we destroyed more German aircraft on the ground than we did in the air. Once, the oil field and chemical plant kept them on the ground and so we went after them there.
David: How often, I mean percentage wise, in number of missions, how often did you see German aircraft? Was it like everytime you went up?
Charles: There were field missions that we didn’t but almost every mission, we would hear that they are in the air somewhere where their tactic is there would be several bomb groups in the air at the same time and of course you stayed with your assigned group.
David: On the scale of 1 to 10, how much would you like to go fly that.
Charles: Well, 1 to 10, I bet 10. But you know, technology is taking us to a new level. I ended up flying F-4s and somebody asked me “How do you compare with F-16, F-15 planes” you don’t. Technology is giving us something different, and I tell the young folks “How is your computer knowledge” because we wouldn’t be flying if we didn’t have our computers. We can’t think fast enough and technology has taken us to a new level in airframe performance and it takes computers to get the job done.
David: Where do the words rest and fear drop into this conversation for you in your experience?
Charles: Well, I’ve been asked “Were you afraid?” and I said nope. We had excellent training. We were at the Southeast training command and if you’re afraid or scared, you’re in the wrong business. Go do something else. So, well your adrenaline does get up in circumstances to say the least but by and large with good training, you knew what the mission was, you have the equipment to accomplish it so it was a great experience.
David: But is there any way to really compare for combat and that experience no matter how much you trained?
Charles: Probably not but we’ve been able to simulate a lot of circumstances and so I guess they get to as close as they can to it but until you’re flying there and suddenly realize hey somebody is firing back at you and you take a hit in the plane. That does kind of get your attention.
David: The bomber crews, to back up, when did the business of painting the tails red, how did that begin?
Charles: I mentioned there were four fighter groups picked to begin the escort work and although I don’t remember the numbers for the 325th, other groups, one had yellow tail, one had candy stripe, one had checker blue tail, 337 fighter group ended up with a red tail. So the red tail, red nose and for those that are looking at our P-51 here, Doug mentioned and talked about, we’re in the 302nd squadron colors and the words behind the spinner and trim ad color allowed the crew chiefs to know what aircraft was taxiing in. So we all had the red nose and the 332nd red nose, red tail, but that behind the spinner helped our crew chiefs know what was going on. And of course the colors of all other groups helped the gunners and those B-17s and B-24s know that we were friendly because up there in the air, aircrafts come in, it’s pretty difficult to be sure you got the right target.
David: Given the racism and all that from earlier, how did these bomber crews regard your squadrons?
Charles: Well that’s interesting because many of them did not know that the red tails were black pilots until well after the war. There were a few that did in fact one of the groups rather kept them from their own base, landed at the Ramitelli where we were, were put up and we’re aware that perhaps that some surprise too, that black pilots were flying the red tail 51s but as I say, the majority didn’t know until well after the way because as I say, segregation went overseas too and we didn’t attend the same rest camp, never got to the Isle of Dupree during that timeframe. We had to be in Naples area for our rest camp. Some getting for a three-day time perhaps in Rome when everyone’s free ran into others, and there were some, it was very limited.
David: Did you all lost friends in the course of all of these? How did you deal with that?
Charles: That’s one of the difficult things of combat, to have a friend, I lost my wingman on his 97th mission in an accident. That’s a tough thing that we all regret in war that there are those who get and just thankful that a number of us survived, but we can never forgot what they accomplished giving their lives for the freedoms that we so much enjoy.
David: So who was Benjamin O’ Davis?
Charles: Benjamin O’ David for folks that don’t know his story graduated from West Point in 1936 and said he wanted to fly. And I mentioned he was denied because they said they have no black units. When the army said we’ll experiment, 99th pursuit squadron, he was a captain at the time and went through with the first class. There were 12 cadets and he is a student officer. He and four other cadets completed the first bill of training for formula 99th, those 32 pilots that are mentioned. He took the 99th into combat in North Africa, at Sicily, came back home to be commander of the 332nd Fighter Group with the other two squadrons then went over again, went to Sicily, went over in January of ’44, remained as a commander of the unit throughout the wartime.
David: Describe him as an officer and as a leader.
Charles: Well, the way I put it, he definitely led the young, I’d say the second, first lieutenants know what the task was and what it was all about and why we were there. Highly respected for what he had gone through and what it meant. So we looked up to him. He wasn’t an easy person to get close to well until many years later at the war and he wrote his book Tuskegee Airmen America, that he seem to relax and you could feel a little closer to him. But he was a great leader, highly respected and certainly you’d say the right man at the right time.
David: And he achieved what rank, finally?
Charles: Well that’s interesting. When he went through training, I’d say he was a captain. His counterparts at West Point were all lieutenant colonels. So they bumped into major to lieutenant colonels, whereas he ended with three-star general on service and was promoted with his four-star in retirement.
David: So he was the first black four-star?
Charles: No. He was the first black general in the air force. The first black four-star turned out to be Daniel Chappie James.
David: Now tell us about Chappie James.
Charles: Chappie James when I went into training was one of the instructors in Tuskegee Institute Civilian Pilot Training Program, and as I understand the story, they tried to make the instructors war officers rather than civilians and that didn’t do go over very well. So they gave them the option of coming on active duty or going back as civilian instructors. He chose to come on active duty and in fact, when I performed in, we were both in Korea at the same time. He was in the 12th squadron, I was in the 67th. But Chappie was one of these all-around people. He could play every instrument at the band. He could play football, basketball, baseball. Whatever it was, you name it. But an excellent speaker. He could go down in the waterfront and talk in there and he caught the eye. There was a time that public speaking was an important asset as you move along in rank, and he certainly filled that bill. He became a commander of NORAD and our air defense squadron and became the first four-star general of the air force. The program produced three. There was a Major General that handled the finance and that type of thing, Chappie and the ____ were the three generals from their experience.
David: We talk a lot about you and other pilots, but we don’t talk a heck of a lot about maintenance and about how you keep thousands of airplanes up in the air in a combat zone and keep them flying on a day to day basis. So how did they do that?
Charles: You know, that’s a very interesting question because in the period we’re talking about, we didn’t have hangars and the facilities and so on and as I mentioned for the 332nd Fighter Group in training, we switched from the P-40 to the P-39 in combat. We dropped the P-39, picked up P-47, dropped the P-47, picked up P-51s, and the mechanics didn’t miss a beat. We were in combat so there wasn’t time to go to school. It was a matter of reading and understanding the tech orders and for them, get their hands greasy out in the weather. We didn’t have the hangars and facilities that are often made available now. Of course, planes are more technical, maybe need more protection but we owe an awful lot to those mechanics who said “Hey, this is my airplane, bring it back.”
David: So how proud were they at what they did? We know you guys are proud at what you did. But how proud were they?
Charles: I’d say extremely proud because they knew what it meant for a plane to take off, spend that time in the air and I don’t think anybody was looking any harder when the planes began coming back, to see as I say if their aircraft came back. But certainly, we owe them a great debt of gratitude for their perseverance, their approach, and the circumstances in maintaining and keeping the aircraft that allowed us to do the job in the air.
David: When you came back to the States, how were you received when you came back to the States after all these sensational performance as an air group?
Charles: Well, they hadn’t quite taken hold there at home of what we really accomplished at the time, so coming down the plane, there were still signs, whites, blacks in another direction. They gave us a week in the so-called rest camp which happened to be a hotel in Atlantic City and the folks that were there said “Well this is the first time a black had slept in a room in a hotel” but things began to move slowly as the story and the experience, and folks begin to realize what it’s all about. It was about access opportunity and being prepared.
David: You decided to stay active. Why?
Charles: Well, I did say I was enjoying flying, I had great assignments and I’d say I couldn’t have written a better script. But also, in the late 50s, I thought about maybe getting out of the service and looking at the airlines but they weren’t black pilots or women at that time, and so I stayed in the service. But I continued to get wonderful assignments and opportunities, promotions along with it, and that added to the successes we’d achieved, and so I just say I’m just a lucky guy and you know what, I actively flew 27 of my 30 years. 27 of those 30 years of service.
David: So along comes Korea, and what’s your rank at this point and what’s your position at this point?
Charles: As I went over to the Philippines as a maintenance officer, a month after I’ve been there was when the war broke out and they grabbed the P-51 pilots. I went to Korea with the 67th squadron as a maintenance officer. Lou Sebille who was our commander gave his life to destroy a target shortly after we’re flying. We flew our first missions out of Japan while they built the first strip inside the Busan perimeter, but when Lou lost his life, I moved up to the squadron operations officer and eventually received a spot promotion to major there in combat.
David: You flew the Mustang in Korea, what was that experience? What did you do?
Charles: Well I call the experience in Europe with that was air superiority type flying, keep the air clear so that the bombers could do their job. My flying in Korea was all interdiction and ground support. I never a MIG but I’d say they were down in the trees where we were, doing the work supporting the ground troops and that was throughout that mission. But we carried bombs, napalm, rockets, all the things needed to pursue interdiction and ground support commissions.
David: At what point did you first get your first squadron?
Charles: I didn’t return. I had just gotten overseas as I mentioned when the war broke out and I said rather than come back to the States which is an option, I could, I went back to the Philippines and as a major, I was assigned to the 44th Fighter Bomber Squadron that remained. That was the third squadron of the 18th Fighter Group that stayed in the Philippines and got my first jet flying experience and I became the commander of the squadron for two years.
David: Tell us about that first time you pushed the throttle forward in a jet and you flew in a jet.
Charles: That was a great experience. But the FAA didn’t have the trust that we have going by out there. So to be on the ground and to be able to go to 100% and the fire is still burning, let go of your breaks and be up at 20,000 feet just a few minutes was a real thrill and I enjoyed every bit of it. I have been asked was it difficult? I didn’t think so because I didn’t have to deal with prop setting and mixture. I used to say if the fire is still burning, you just go and enjoy flying and that’s what I did.
David: So you’re skipper of the squadron. How were you treated?
Charles: Wonderful. We had a great day. We might say we were doing the air defense mission for the Philippine islands and I was treated very well. I feel really blessed for the way things worked out and an example I could give you, one of our squadron, of course there was one other black in the squadron, the rest are all white, but one of the white pilot’s family came over and the father wanted to do something at the club for everybody but he told his son I wouldn’t be welcome. And his son told him if I wasn’t welcome, he could not expect anybody else in the squadron to show up. So that was a great feeling.
David: You all heard of Frank Borman who is in Apollo 8, one of our great astronauts. Tell us your Frank Borman story.
Charles: Oh, Frank turned out to be a good friend, he and his wife but my story with Frank, I had to say I was commander of the 44th Fighter Bomber Squadron. He had come over the Philippines, he was the 2nd Lieutenant at that time. And they used him, they gave him some task up at 13th Air Force Headquarters and we had some things going on and they assigned him down to the 44th Squadron for a period. But he had a problem that had taken him out of flight status, a flight surgeon there in the Philippines because he wasn’t familiar with his history, didn’t want to put him back on fly. And of course we pilots looking out for each other, we said well, I have the authority, I’ll go bootleg some flying time for him and have the flight surgeon monitor. Flight surgeon agreed. We bootlegged some time for Frank, turned out well, got him back on flight status. Of course later we didn’t know where he was going to be an astronaut, but we’ve been lifelong friends.
David: So you eventually come back to the States to go to Air Command and Staff in Montgomery, Alabama. Think about the geography of that. With your record, you get to Air Command and Staff, you’re what? A major? So how were you treated at Air Command and Staff at Montgomery?
Charles: Change comes about slowly. In class and in school, we were treated fine but when we went into barbershops to get our haircut, the barber started to cut my hair and then paused, and said “Are you black?” I said yes. He refused to complete the haircut so we have to get to the base commander and they got the barber out of the city and set up a room where we can get our haircut. And also, I was able to find a house to rent while I was in school because my family was there and I still don’t know what I said but I had to tell my oldest daughter at that time as she couldn’t play in that park that was a block and a half away. I still don’t know what I said but she turned out to be pretty good. So things improved.
David: So, on to Southeast Asia and a new airplane, the RF-4 Phantom. What was it like when you started flying the Phantom compared to the P-80?
Charles: Great experience. They started two new tactical reconnaissance squadron, the 12th and the 16th. We all went through reconnaissance school together and out to Mountain Home, Idaho to get an aircraft, went through survival training and then over to the Philippines. And I found out that I took the 16th squadron to Tan Son Nhut Air Base in South Vietnam, and the other lieutenant colonel, I had been promoted by this time, took the 12th Squadron to Thailand but we were doing a tactical reconnaissance.
David: How risky was that flying compared to say flying over North Vietnam.
Charles: You know somebody is firing back at you when you go over the targets and for those who don’t know in the RF, we had no weapons, our defense was speed so in the highly defended areas, we just flew a little faster many times. Of course, you did not know at night you could see the tracers trailing behind you so you just say thank goodness for the speed. Although I had no scratch in my flying the 100 and some missions, I did get the airplane in Korea but I was able to get back to home base and over Laos, oh we didn’t fly over Laos, yes we did. But yeah, I couldn’t get back to home base. But fortunately I was able to get the plane to a safe base and my backseater pulled the photograph equipment out and we bumped a ride back to home base in Tan Son Nhut, kept on going.
David: So there was the third war bunch of missions, 136, 137 missions to give you again I repeat. He holds the record and will historically in the United States Military for flying the most combat missions in three wars in the history of the United States Air Force. Well, you get back to the States an you are the first black base and wing commander ever in the United States Air Force. How fulfilling was that for you?
Charles: Well, you might say it’s a second but when I mentioned that integration takes place slowly, Lockbourne Air Base was a wing based operation by BO Davis. The Air Force closed it in 1st of July 1949, we were scattered around the world.
David: Lockbourne is in Ohio?
Charles: Lockbourne in Ohio, now Rickenbacker Air Base. So we went training close in 46th Tuskegee Airmen Air Field, we were all shipped to Lockbourne. So through that time, the army never changed the policy. It took the Air Force’s action when they became a separate service in ’47 to say we need to use people based on training and experience and where needed, not their happenstance at birth and we’re not getting enough money to keep Lockbourne Air Base open and separate. To meet our requirements, we need to integrate and for those who know the history, I would say the very courageous President Harry Truman, the one that said the buck stops here, 10 months later issued Executive Order 9981, mandating that all of the services need to integrate. He said _____ don’t do anything, you’re moving too fast, but he stuck to his guns and helped bring about a change that has proven to be important to our country, and still is because we’re more diverse now than we were then.
David: How significant was your entire, what we now call the Tuskegee Airmen experiences and your performance over all those years. How significant was that leading to the integration of all the military?
Charles: Well, some folks say it was an early statement in civil rights, we didn’t believe that, but what we accomplished although in their study, the army war at college called them facts, we said we dispelled the biases and generalizations and the attitudes that believed that because you are a minority person, you didn’t have the qualities to support what was needed to for us to maintain our freedoms if you will and that we enjoy. It turned out to be it’s the education and having the opportunity and then proving yourself and we were able to do that.
David: Show us please and tell us what does the double V mean?
Charles: What double V turned out to be was, I believe it was what the Pittsburgh Couriers, one of the black newspapers said that we were fighting a Double V program. The first V is for victory against Hitlerism in Europe and then later what was going on in the Pacific, and the second V was fighting against racism here at home. And the Tuskegee Program really had a big part to do with both of those victories. Although they didn’t get into combat, the 477th Bomb Group flying in the B-25 and preparing to go to the Pacific fought that battle against racism in their training. Army regulations had said that there should be no segregation based on race, creed or color. There were those who didn’t want to believe it, Colonel Sellway was one of them and he had General Hunter’s approval to write a base regulation that read on his base “trainees could only use facilities he designated.” Well, bomb Group were all black, they were trainees but they couldn’t go to the officers’ club and so on, well, the officers know what army regulations called for and they tried to enter the club peacefully in twos and threes and were rejected.
Of course this upset Colonel Sellway, so he had called them in and said they’d like them again to red this regulation and sign a stipulation that they would abide by it. 101 refused because they knew what army regulations said but they shipped off from their Indiana training base to Godman Field, Kentucky, put behind barbwire guards and all of these. They knew Colonel Sellway was wrong, they dismissed him, but as I say the army didn’t change the policy. So they said “Well, what do we do?” They decided the war is over in Europe, got the situation here, we’d have a composite group. We’ll keep two of the B-25 squadrons, we’ll reactivate the 99th Pursuit Squadron, and this composite group. That’s when they opened up Lockbourne Air Base, set up in Columbus, Ohio for this segregated operation. And I say in ’46 when they closed training at Tuskegee, those of us that were there, we were shipped to Lockbourne Air Base. But when the Air Force decided to eliminate segregation, they really didn’t keep the composite group. They reactivated the 33nd Fighter Group, they were flying P-47s and in fact, the pilots flying the P-47 were the top guns and they were reciprocating the engine phase so the first Air Force gunner remake. This is May of 1949. I’d say it was first of July, the Air Force was able to complete the action and close the segregated base.
David: As you look back over your career, your 32 years in the Air Force, how much of that experience were your parents able to follow and know what you were doing?
Charles: Well unfortunately I lost my mother very early in life but my dad had served as a chaplain in both World War I and World War II, but he was aware and attended my graduation when I got wings. So he was fully aware. In fact, at one time the whole family, my sister was a ____ and my brother was a signal officer, I got my army wings and as I said dad was a chaplain. So we had all served.
David: What does your whole career mean to you? As you described, the breath of it and the success of It, what does it mean to you?
Charles: Well, I’d just say life has been blessing. It’s led to a good life. I was able post-service to serve in business in Kansas City, Missouri area and had a good life. But one day, my wife said, she’d like to go fishing a little more often and I said I don’t really need to be punching clocks. So I retired again and we went fishing.
David: What are the challenges to our country today as you look around and see where we are in the world and we’re at home? What are the challenges today?
Charles: Well, I like to talk to young folks and I get a chance to go to some schools, particularly middle school because at middle school kids listen. High school kids don’t listen very much anymore. But the value experiences sustained us are still important today but I tell the young folks, I put in four Ps. Perceive, prepare, perform, persevere. But perceive. Dream your dreams. But I like to add, as you find your talents, hopefully find something you enjoy doing because you’d hate to go to work everyday because you hate what you’re doing. But prepare. I say, get a good education. Read, write and speak well, but develops the talents. We’re losing some of that because they don’t teach you how to write anymore in some schools. So prepare, perform, and I say let excellence be your goal in everything that you do. Never less than your best because if you do less than your best, you let yourself down, you’re letting your family down, your community. But finally, preserver as we did. Because back then, they always thought, if a large of blacks get together, there are going to be riots, there are going to be these, and we had guns and we didn’t go after anybody with those guns. But persevere. Don’t let circumstances be the excuse for not achieving. Can’t beat that, I don’t think. And that’s what I like to pass on.
David: Ladies and gentleman, Colonel Charles McGee. Ladies gentlemen, how many veterans are here? All of you, in a moment, a young woman is going to be over here with challenge cards for all of you veterans. Thank you all for sharing this afternoon and I will tell you, it’s an honor for me to be here and spend this time with you sir. Thank you.
Chris: So there was this moment there when Charles was speaking, and this F-22 took off and jus tore a hole in the sky, and of course you hear Charles make a joke about it, that that’s no P-51 or something like that, but it was such this amazing moment where you saw this long history of where the air force, in force started in World War II, I know that we did some work in World War I but especially in World War II, and you saw this history, just right there in front of your eyes, of this Tuskegee Airman of all the work that he had done in the field in aviation and in bringing it forward. And then you saw this F-22, the latest and greatest just completely ripping a hole in the sky and him looking up at it and just being amazed. So it’s such a special, cool moment. Those were everywhere are Oshkosh, it’s just really cool.
So I hope you guys enjoyed this 8-point roll episode. We have another one coming up next. We’re not quite there. It looks like this was number five, so we have several more left, and I hope you guys enjoyed it. So if you guys want to check out more about AviatorCast, just head to AviatorCast.com. You can win a free t-shirt by reviewing the show and if I read your review on the show, I will send you one, and you can review on iTunes or Stitcher. And if you can point out any other location where you do it episode. We have another one coming up next. We’re not quite there. It looks like this was number five, so we have several more left, and I hope you guys enjoyed it.
So if you guys want to check out more about AviatorCast, just head to AviatorCast.com. You can win a free t-shirt by reviewing the show and if I read your review on the show, I will send you one, and you can review on iTunes or Stitcher. And if you can point out any other location where you do it as well and I read it on the show, we’ll count that as well. But let’s get into the next 8-point roll episode, again celebrating National Aviation Day. Until then, throttle on![/transcript]