Brig. Gen. Charles Edward McGee, a distinguished Tuskegee Airman pilot and the grandson of former slaves, died Jan. 16 in his Bethesda, Md., home at the age of 102.
Born Dec. 17, 1919, in Cleveland, he counts as one of the first Black pilots in the U.S. military, completing 409 combat missions during his 30-year career.
McGee entered the armed forces during World War II, flying with the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-Black military pilot group formed due to segregation. Before his retirement, he also served in both the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Among his awards for his service, McGee received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star Medal and the Congressional Gold Medal. In 2011, the National Aviation Hall of Fame inducted him into its ranks. Later, in February 2020, he received a promotion from colonel to brigadier general.
McGee married Frances Nelson on October 17, 1942. He would be sworn in as an aviation cadet just two days after the couple’s wedding. They had three children: Charlene, Ronald and Yvonne.
As a sophomore at the University of Illinois studying engineering, a member of the National Society of Pershing Rifles and a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., he enlisted in the U.S. Army on Oct. 26, 1942 — just in time to join the Tuskegee Airmen. (He had earned his pilot’s wings and graduated from Class 43-F on June 30, 1943.)
After his military service, McGee held functional and honorary positions in aviation.
In 1978, at the age of 58, he completed his college degree at Columbia College, more than 30 years after his initial enrollment at the University of Illinois. Though interrupted by World War II, attaining a college degree had been a lifelong goal.
In December 2019, for his 100th birthday, McGee flew with a copilot in a Cirrus Vision Jet and a Cessna Citation M2. The Cirrus flight took him to Dover Air Force Base where the base commander and many airmen welcomed him, anxious to meet the Tuskegee Airman who helped break down barriers for them. He would later be honored at the 2020 State of the Union Address.
One of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen, McGee died in his sleep on Jan. 16.
In a statement, his family described him as a “living legend known for his kind-hearted and humble nature, who saw positivity at every turn.”
He’s survived by his three children, 10 grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.
“He had his right hand over his heart and was smiling serenely,” said his youngest daughter, Yvonne, who lived with him and was with him upon his death.