Pioneering Tuskegee Airman Charles McGee dies at 102

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Brigadier General Charles McGee.
Brigadier General Charles McGee.
Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images
  • US war aviator Charles McGee died on Sunday at the age of 102.
  • Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin on Twitter described McGee as an "American hero" who was one of the last surviving members of the famed unit.
  • The Brigadier General served in World War II as well as the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, flying more than 400 missions in total.

US war pilot Charles McGee, who faced military segregation as he became a legendary member of the all-Black flying force known as the Tuskegee Airmen, died on Sunday at age 102, officials said.

"Today, we lost an American hero," Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin - himself a barrier-breaker as the first African American to lead the Pentagon - said on Twitter about the aviator who was one of the last surviving members of the famed unit.

"While I am saddened by his loss, I'm also incredibly grateful for his sacrifice, his legacy, and his character," Austin added. "Rest in peace, General."

McGee served in World War II as well as the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, flying more than 400 missions in total.

During World War II, American units and training were segregated by race, as were military facilities.

In 1941 Congress ordered the Army Air Corps to launch an all-Black combat unit, and the training of Black men to become pilots and mechanics began at a new air base in Tuskegee, Alabama.

McGee decades later expressed pride at the unit's achievements - and how it helped pave the way for full integration in the US military.

"Don't let circumstances be an excuse for not achieving," he said on American History TV. "We could have bowed our heads and said 'They called me names, they don't like me, said I can't do something,' and gone off and not serve the country. But what would that have accomplished?"

The Tuskegee Airmen's performance, he said, "helped bring about a change to the country".

McGee enlisted in the military the day after his wedding, according to US Vice President Kamala Harris, who said on Sunday that she spoke by phone to the retired airman last month to mark his 102nd birthday and "to thank him for his service to our nation".

McGee was among the surviving members of the unit who were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian award, in 2007, recognising their "unique military record that inspired revolutionary reform in the Armed Forces".

In 2020, then-president Donald Trump invited McGee to the State of the Union address where the airman received a standing ovation. Trump promoted McGee to the rank of brigadier general.

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