Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Salute to Black History Month

February is nationally dedicated as a time to honor the many contributions made to our country by African Americans. It serves as an opportunity to commemorate many individuals’ legacy of leadership and salute the excellence displayed by those who have played a vital role in the history of our nation. Their patriotism, loyalty and leadership, coupled with their labor, determination and intellect, have socially enriched our national community. 

AFA is proud to recognize the great service and sacrifice of African American veterans throughout our country’s history, and we continue to appreciate the dedication of those serving our country. So, as Black History Month comes to an end, we’d like to share with you a very special and personal interview we conducted with Tuskegee Airman Charles E. McGee when he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame last year.

Q & A with Tuskegee Airmen Col. Charlie McGee:

Q: The Tuskegee airmen are a true legacy. Today you’re being inducted into the aviation hall of fame, what does this mean to you?

McGee: Well, this is indeed a … honor because there was no expectation that my experiences would qualify me to join such a distinguished group of folks in aviation. As a pilot, certainly, I’ve been a part of the aviation community but to reach this level of recognition is – I’m humbled, indeed.

Q: What was one of your most memorable moments in World War II participating with the legendary 332nd fighter group?

McGee: There’s probably several things that happened but the fact that we were able to come together and accomplish something that many believed wasn’t possible was certainly a part of what that experience has meant and what it has given us. But fortunately we came together, became an adhesive group that performed for a nation assigned to a level that was very meaningful to the future of our aviation community.

Q: I think also you were Americans first and foremost, and when I talk to the female pilots and whatnot I always ask them, do you consider yourselves a rebel? And they said no we just considered ourselves Americans and I think you know you didn’t consider yourselves as different.

McGee: No, that’s absolutely right …. We were all just interested in the opportunity that was being offered and interested as an American to be a participant in this World War, if you will, that we were involved in and became involved in.

Q: I can imagine most of you had a huge variety of backgrounds and I don’t know how much education people or their families had, but how did you get involved in flying?

McGee: Well, first of all I’ve always felt fortunate to grow up in a family that said “go to high school, go to college,” because they realize that the importance of education helps prepare you for whatever opportunities may come in the future.

So I was in my second year at the University of Illinois when I learned that part of the Army policy was that they needed black mechanics before they could have black pilots and it turns out that the mechanics entered training in 1941 at Chanute Field, Illinois, and that was just 14 miles away from the University. So the community was aware that something different was taking place.

I’m not sure how it really happened. I wasn’t dodging the draft but I was fully aware from ROTC training about infantry and handling the rifle, and – I think we used the term “ground pounders” back then – what that life may be like, and I guess maybe even through my ROTC instructor, who said “well, you ought to apply for the pilot cycle program”, and I did and passed the exams and I was accepted.

Q: Was ROTC segregated at the time, or no?

McGee: Not at the University of Illinois.

Q: What a blessing that you had a person at the ROTC level that encouraged you.

McGee: Yes, but all through my life I think I have been fortunate that my schooling experience had been both on the very segregated side and then later in many instances … fortunately on an integrated side. Where I was in a community where there weren’t enough blacks for separate schools, so I think that was to my advantage as far as the education that I was getting and preparing me for this future opportunity.

Q: Tell us about any particular missions that stick out in your memory. Or do I have to read the book?

McGee: Haha … well, you know folks have said to me you need to write your story, and I said I’m not a writer, so my daughter finally did. But, the training that we had was really excellent, although the army policy – it started out as an experiment because they didn’t think that we were capable. But they drew on folks with a college education and so I guess you can say we made the most of that opportunity to prove that it’s not the color of skin that determines talent, its being given the opportunity for whatever is out there.

Q: Where you the most educated of the group or were there other people that came that also had college degrees?

McGee: Well, initially the program anybody that was in it had college degrees and it’s kind of interesting that they, as I say the army started out as an experiment because they just didn’t believe that it was going to be successful…

Q: …that you could do it?

McGee: Yeah, that we could do it. You know, we can dig ditches, drive trucks, cook food, but do flying airplanes and maintaining airplanes? No way. In fact, the 1925 war college study that set up their policy actually felt that the black American was a sub-species of the human race attitude. So as I say we didn’t get together back at home and say let’s go down there and set the world on fire, but we came as individuals interested in the opportunity. And fortunately we were able to absorb the training without standards being changed, and even though we in the early years were in a segregated environment, (we) still proved our capability.

Q: It’s a content of character.

McGee: Well, thank you.

Q: We joked about this earlier, but which were your favorite airplanes to fly? I heard a guy ask you yesterday when we were getting into the car and this random guy walked up and said, “Sir, what did you fly?”

McGee: Yeah, well when you talk to an old fighter pilot you just end up realizing that the P-51 Mustang with that laminar flow wing, and then they switched from the Allison engine to the Rolls Royce Merlin engine, … (was) a wonderful little aircraft that was superb for the type of missions that we had to fly – particularly the high altitude and long range escort missions. So the P-51 stands out and even today, when a P-51 with that Merlin engine flies overhead, and you don’t even need to look you can say, “There goes a P-51….”

Q: Right.

McGee: You never forget that sound.

Q: Thirty years active duty -- you’ve been in combat, WWII, Korea, Vietnam. One of the things we like to share at the Air Force Association with the Air Force Memorial through Facebook and through social media – we are trying to reach younger Americans and are trying to pass on wisdom and advice.

McGee: Yeah, well ultimately I think for the young folks we need to know the history and what being successful meant not only to our country but really the world over. When we look at the nature of our fighting against Hitler and Europe and against specific areas, our young people need to understand the things that we enjoy, if you will, and our freedoms. Making an individual choice and preparing yourself are important today for them and for the future of our country. So, it’s often said you know, “freedom doesn’t come free” and what was paid for us being free was some lives lost, and many Americans providing a service that was needed at the time. So to have been able to have been a part of what was a success, if you will, for our country is something that keeps you … willing to pass on to youngsters that they need to believe in themselves and they need to believe in our part, and the opportunities, and realize to take advantage of those opportunities they have to prepare. Everything doesn’t get handed to you; you have to be a part of that making it a success.

Q: One last question. You’ve told me what you did once you got off back to Dewey but could you just kind of let us know. I know you went into business I know you ran the airport in Kansas City.

McGee: Yeah well I was fortunate. You know I got my degree late, late in life because I had two years when I got the call to enter the service as a cadet and get my wings, and become an officer. But after retirement I realized that although I’ve done some studies along the way, having a degree is still important, and as this is to my family and my children, you need to get your college education as well. I went on and put all of the studies that I’ve done over the years together and went on and got a degree in Business Administration, although that was a change from the initial early years, but it prepared me to be able to work in real estate and purchasing for a company after I retired and that was interesting.

The work that I was doing initially got changed when my wife took ill and passed, and so I had to take some time off because of that. But when I went back into the workforce I ended up managing the Kansas City downtown airport for a little over two years. This was wonderful, because it’s close to aircraft. And although I wasn’t, if you will, a first pilot in that endeavor it was still nice to be around airplanes and be knowledgeable about what’s going on in the aviation world.

Q: When was the last time you got to fly a plane?

McGee: Wow, my flying now has been, if somebody has a seat open I’m ready to go in the air.

Q: Really?

McGee: Fortunately there are a couple P-51’s around the country…

Q: There are, yeah.

McGee: That we call “Piggyback” but they took some equipment out that made it possible to put a seat there, and a control stick. So, even last year I had a P-51 ride and was able to still do a roll.

Q: You did?!

McGee: Haha, yes. And also PT-17 which is the primary trainers, the first aircraft I ever flew, and the one that I’ve always said after that first ride I knew I made the right decision.

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