Aviation History: Interview with Tuskegee Airman Charles McGee
Here’s a portion of an interview with Tuskegee Airman Charles McGee. To read the continuation, link to historynet.com at the end of this article.
Eugene Jacques Bullard, a former infantryman of the French Foreign Legion, set a precedent when he obtained his flying certificate on May 5, 1917, for it qualified him as the first black airman in American history. Significantly, however, the volunteer from Columbus, Georgia, had earned his flying status from the French Air Service, which he served as a fighter pilot in Escadrilles N.93 and Spa.85 from August 27 to November 11, 1917. Bullard’s native United States would not allow black airmen to fight for their country until 1943, when the first of a contingent trained at Tuskegee, Alabama, were formed as the 99th Fighter Squadron and shipped out to North Africa. That unit and the 332nd Fighter Group that followed would prove their worth in the last two years of World War II.
Besides establishing an outstanding record for successfully defending U.S. bombers against enemy fighters, several of the Tuskegee Airmen went on to distinguished postwar careers in the U.S. Air Force. One of them was Colonel Charles Edward McGee, who shared highlights of his long career with Aviation History senior editor Jon Guttman.
Aviation History: Could you tell us something of your childhood and education?
McGee: I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on December 7, 1919. My mother passed away at my sister’s birth, when I was little over a year old. We spent time in Cleveland and with grandparents who were in Morgantown and Charleston, West Virginia. When I was in third grade, my father was teaching at Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Florida. We spent a year there, then back to Cleveland until 1929, when he moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he was doing social work.
AH: Your father seems to have been a fairly prominent citizen.
McGee: Yes. In addition, he was an African Methodist Episcopal Church minister. We never had a lot, but I never remember being hungry or not being clean. I don’t have any recollections of specific actions of bigotry, except that schools were segregated, and when we were in Florida, we lived in a small house that was out on the edge of town. Also, because of the level of schooling for blacks in the South, when we returned to Cleveland, I had to repeat third grade. I became a Boy Scout in Illinois, and when my father’s ministry took him to Keokuk, Iowa, in the mid-1930s, I spent my second through senior years of high school there. In the fall of my senior year, he returned to south Chicago and I graduated from Du Sable High School in 1938. My family didn’t have the money to send me to college then, so I worked for a year with the Civilian Conservation Corps in northern Illinois, where I learned engineering and contour farming. I was then able to attend the University of Illinois in 1940. I took engineering and was also in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program and a member of the Pershing Rifles.
AH: What were your feelings when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor–on your birthday–brought the United States into the war?
McGee: My father was preaching in a church in Gary, Indiana, in 1941, and I had taken a summer job in the steel mill there. I was also in the Coleridge Taylor Glee Club. We were driving to sing at a church in south Chicago at 4 that Sunday afternoon when we heard the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. We went on with the show, but I knew that one way or another we were going to be involved in the war.
AH: When did you first become interested in flying?
McGee: I don’t recall even seeing an airplane when I was young. It was about the time I was in college that the Army was beginning to recruit nonflying personnel–communications, engineering, armament and mechanics–for a one-squadron black experiment at Chanute Field. Word of that was spreading through the black community. Well, I already had a draft card, so I filled in that pilot’s application. I was sent over to a couple of places in Indiana to take the examination, and when I passed that, in April 1942, I had to take a physical. I’d also been going with a girl from Champaign, Illinois, Frances E. Nelson, and that summer we became engaged. In my expectation of the call to arms, I did not go back to school in September–I continued working. Frances and I were married on Saturday, October 17, and Monday morning’s mail had that letter I knew was going to come. On October 27, I was sworn into the enlisted reserve, and a few weeks later, I got the call to go to Tuskegee.
AH: What were some of your first impressions of Alabama?
McGee: The trip down was my first real experience of the South. As the train left southern Illinois, you had to change your location in the car. We knew there were certain barber shops or restaurants to go to in Chicago, but you could feel the change in atmosphere and approach as you entered the Deep South–you knew that whatever happened, the law was not going to uphold whatever your position was. When you were a black man from the North, you especially had to be careful what you said and did. You learned to be extra careful when stopping to fill up your car, and even avoid some filling stations. To a degree, the southern blacks were concerned about how a northern Negro was going to act, and a lot of conversations dealt with what you needed to know and where to go to keep out of trouble. One of my classmates happened to be from a well-to-do family who owned a drug store in Montgomery, Alabama, and he helped steer me into the black community, because you didn’t go into the downtown area very much.
AH: Why did the Army choose that location?
McGee: In those days, there was a great fear around the country that when you get large groups of blacks together, there’s got to be trouble. There were places in the North, like Colorado, California and Illinois, that were turned down for the location. On the other hand, the Tuskegee Institute had already had a successful civilian pilot training program, so when the Army began its 99th Squadron experiment, Tuskegee, with flight instructors who began flying in the 1930s, got the contract.
AH: What was the Tuskegee training facility like?
McGee: By the time I got to Tuskegee in the fall of 1942, the airfield had been completed, although they had been training on it even while it was under construction. The 99th had completed its 33-pilot cadre by the time I got there. At that time, too, Colonel Noel F. Parrish was the white commander. The previous commander, Colonel Frederick Von Kimble, was not very supportive of the program, but he was relieved and replaced by Parrish, who had been directing operations. He believed in the program and the people.
AH: How did your training go?
McGee: I entered preflight training as part of Class 43-G, but I was one of several who skipped upper preflight, perhaps because of my college studies, and ended up graduating in Class 43-F. Primary training was at Moton Field, a grass strip just outside the city of Tuskegee, in the Stearman PT-17. We then went on the Army airfield, which was where our white instructors were. We did basic training in the Vultee BT-13A and advanced training in the North American AT-6. My wife came down and worked as a secretary for a Dr. Kenny in the Tuskegee Institute hospital while I was going through training, but I usually only saw her on Sunday afternoons.