Columbia College celebrates Black History Month with video on Colonel Charles McGee, Columbia College alumnus, Tuskegee Airman and American hero

Col. Charles McGee
McGee is a true living legend who represents the hope and promise of America.

Col. Charles McGee ’78, USAF (retired) was a Tuskegee Airman, a select group of black World War II fighter pilots who broke stereotypes. They were the first black men to fly in combat when blacks were generally thought fit only for menial chores; their fighters escorted American bombers over the hostile skies of Europe. Their sterling record helped persuade President Harry S Truman to integrate the armed forces after the war.

McGee named his P-51 Mustang “Kitten” to honor both his wife, Frances “Kitten” Nelson, and his crew chief, who kept the Mustang purring like a contented kitten. McGee's squadron was doing the work that made the Tuskegee Airmen famous: escorting B-17s and B-24s safely to their targets. The all-white bomber crew members would have been flabbergasted had they known they were protected by black pilots.

On August 23, 1944, Charles McGee spotted a formation of German fighters while escorting B-17s en route to the target. McGee slid Kitten onto the tail of a fleeing German FW-190, fired his six big machine guns and struck a blow for civil rights back home. The FW-190 crashed and exploded on the airfield below. McGee strafed a hangar and a switch engine on his way out.

With the start of the Korean War on June 25, 1950 and a shortage of qualified fighter pilots, he was soon back to full combat flying status. He completed 100 fighter-bomber combat missions and his squadron helped to save the Pusan Perimeter.

McGee may also have helped prevent a Chinese conquest of Formosa after the Chinese civil war. Flying in short-range F-80s, McGee and his squadron made it appear that a substantial force was based on Formosa. This charade was accomplished by flights of F-80s departing their home base in Okinawa to fly to Formosa, refuel, buzz the island at low altitude before landing at the opposite end of the island to refuel and fly home. They would repeat the process on the following day. Mainland Chinese radar showed continuing, ongoing jet aerial activity over Formosa when there were no American jets based there at all.

McGee was swept into the Vietnam War, too. Now a lieutenant colonel, he had orders to report to the Pentagon. These were promptly changed to Vietnam. His initial duty was training, but again the pilot shortage found him flying combat reconnaissance missions in RF-4s. He and five other pilots continued to fly missions during the Tet Offensive, when the majority of his pilots were unable to leave the compound.

McGee also commanded a fighter squadron in the Philippines, then a reconnaissance squadron at now-defunct Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base just south of Kansas City. He had taken college-level classes here and there while not on active duty; now, with a full-time desk job and no war in sight, he decided to complete his education. He turned to Columbia College-Kansas City, earning a degree in business administration in 1978. With the new sheepskin, he became director of the Kansas City Downtown Airport and, after a second retirement, was selected as a member of the Aviation Advisory Commission.

McGee retired as a colonel and now lives in Bethesda, Md. He returns to mid-Missouri annually for the Salute to Veterans Memorial Day air show held at the Columbia, Mo., airport.

McGee holds the Air Force fighter combat record of 409 missions and 1151 combat hours. In 2007, President Bush awarded the Airmen the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, the nation's highest civilian award.

The life of McGee displays all the hope and promise of America. The Col. McGee video is available online.

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