Hero aviator of the Tuskegee Airmen honored at Arlington burial

Jun 17, 2022, 5:33 PM | Updated: Jun 25, 2022, 8:52 pm

The casket of Brigadier General Charles McGee arrives at his funeral service at Arlington National ...

The casket of Brigadier General Charles McGee arrives at his funeral service at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington on June 17, 2022. (Chandelis Duster/CNN)

(Chandelis Duster/CNN)

(CNN) — When Charles McGee first dreamt of flying above the clouds nearly a century ago, the U.S. military wouldn’t even allow Black Americans to do so.

On Friday, in ceremonies attended by family and friends, at which the secretary of the Air Force and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff came to pay their respects, McGee, honored as a brigadier general and famed for his heroism as a member of the fabled Tuskegee Airmen, was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, the most sacred of all grounds for U.S. service members.

McGee, who was 102 when he died in his sleep on January 16, successfully completed 409 air combat missions across three wars — World War II, Korea and Vietnam — serving a total of 30 years of active service while overcoming the racial barriers of his day.

But he is best known for being a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black aviators in the U.S. service corps and whose heroism has become legendary in U.S. military history.

At a graveside service Friday, family and friends solemnly stood shoulder to shoulder in sweltering heat. Some held black umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun, lowering them at the request of those behind them who wished to catch a glimpse of the military honors bestowed on a man they adored.

His casket, draped with the American flag, was escorted to the service on a horse-drawn carriage where he will lay alongside his wife, Frances, who was buried at Arlington in 1994.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” a military chaplain recited, and chants of “hallelujah” were shouted throughout the service. The chaplain also prayed Numbers 6:24-26, asking God to “bless him and keep him.”

At one point, there was a military flyover that included Red Tail F-16’s from the Alabama Air National Guard 187th Fighter Wing, a squadron descended from the Tuskegee Airmen squadron, that performed the missing man formation as it flew over the ceremony.

A separate funeral service, which was closed to the media, was also held Friday.

McGee’s heroism wasn’t limited to military gallantry

Born in Cleveland in 1919, McGee joined the U.S. Army in 1942 while studying engineering at the University of Illinois, earning his pilot’s wings in 1943 and joining the Tuskegee Airmen, according to Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. Before World War II, Black Americans were not allowed to become aviators in the U.S. military, but in 1941, the U.S. Army Air Corps created what was then an experimental training program for Black aviators at Alabama’s Tuskegee Army Airfield. From 1941 to 1946, 966 Black military aviators were trained at Tuskegee, according to Arlington National Cemetery.

Despite his desire to serve his country, McGee was burdened with the racism of the Deep South, which was still racially segregated in the age of Jim Crow.

“Back in those days, the city of Tuskegee was off limits, and the sheriff wasn’t a friend. You didn’t buy gas or walk down the street in certain areas,” McGee told The News-Gazette of Champaign, Illinois, in 2019.

Photos of Col. Charles McGee at his Bethesda, Maryland home. (Dudley M. Brooks/The Washington Post/Getty Images via CNN)

McGee flew his first mission in 1944 while stationed in Italy with 301st Fighter Squadron of the 332d Fighter Group. He also escorted Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers and a Consolidated B-24 Liberator over Austria, Germany and the Balkans.

He was promoted to captain after flying a total of 137 combat missions, and at the end of 1944, became an instructor on North American B-25 Mitchell bombers. After World War II, he returned to the U.S. where he became a base operation and training officer at Lockbourne Air Field in Columbus, Ohio. During the Korean War, he again flew P-51 Mustangs with the 67th Fighter Bomber Squadron, completing 100 missions and earning a promotion to major.

In Vietnam, he flew an additional 172 combat missions. When he retired as a colonel in January 1973, he had logged 6,308 flying hours during his service.

‘A mighty grand universe’

After his distinguished military career, McGee became director of the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport in Kansas City, and at 58, he received a degree from Columbia College in Kansas City, fulfilling his goal of obtaining a college degree.

McGee received numerous military awards and distinctions, including the Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf Clusters, a Bronze Star and the Legion of Merit with one Oak Leaf Cluster. On February 4, 2020, he received an honorary promotion to brigadier general from then-President Donald Trump and was a guest of the White House at the State of the Union address later that night.

Charles McGee, who served with the Tuskagee Airmen, salutes during the State of the Union address on February 4, 2020, at President Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images via CNN)

A member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated, McGee received numerous accolades, including the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007. In 2011, was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

Reflecting on his love of flying, he recounted to the News-Gazette in 2019 how he enjoyed “going up in the air; loop, roll and spin; and then come back and put my feet on the ground” and “flying up to 45,000 feet to watch the sun set and stars come out.”

As he put it, “It makes you realize we human beings are just one small aspect in a mighty grand universe.”

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

KSL 5 TV Live

National News

The Houston Street station in Manhattan is pictured on Saturday, May 25, 2024.  A man was arrested ...

Celina Tebor, Zenebou Sylla and Samantha Beech, CNN

Man arrested after throwing ‘flammable substance’ on stranger in NYC subway station

A man has been arrested after police accused him of throwing a “flammable substance” on a stranger, setting his shirt on fire in a New York City subway station.

3 hours ago

Gilbert Carrasquillo (GC Images/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)...

Cindy Von Quednow, CNN

Former ‘General Hospital’ actor Johnny Wactor fatally shot in Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Former “General Hospital” actor Johnny Wactor was fatally shot in downtown Los Angeles while interrupting thieves Saturday, according to his agent and CNN affiliate KABC. The actor, who played Brando Corbin in the hospital soap opera, was shot as he left work early Saturday morning, his mother told KABC, In a […]

4 hours ago

A man looks at a damaged car after a tornado hit the day before, Sunday, May 26, 2024, in Valley Vi...

Bruce Schreiner and Julio Cortez, The Associated Press

At least 21 dead in Memorial Day weekend storms that devastated several US states

A series of powerful storms swept over the central and southern U.S. over the Memorial Day holiday weekend, killing at least 21 people and leaving a wide trail of destroyed homes, businesses and power outages.

4 hours ago

President Joe Biden, left, joined by, from left, Vice President Kamala Harris, Defense Secretary Ll...

Zeke Miller, AP White House Correspondent

Biden says each generation has to ‘earn’ freedom, in solemn Memorial Day remarks

President Joe Biden is marking Memorial Day with a pledge the United States will continue the work of the nation’s fallen toward creating a more perfect union.

6 hours ago

ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA - MAY 24: Travelers make their way through Ronald Reagan Washington National Ai...

Associated Press

Friday’s preholiday travel breaks the record for the most airline travelers screened at US airports

A record was broken ahead of the Memorial Day weekend for the number of airline travelers screened at U.S. airports.

7 hours ago

FILE: Bill Walton is seen during the Ruffles NBA All-Star Celebrity Game during the 2022 NBA All-St...

Tim Reynolds, AP Basketball Writer

Bill Walton, Hall of Fame player who became a star broadcaster, dies at 71

Bill Walton, who starred for John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins before becoming one of the biggest stars of basketball broadcasting, has died.

7 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Electrician repairing ceiling fan with lamps indoors...

Lighting Design

Stay cool this summer with ceiling fans

When used correctly, ceiling fans help circulate cool and warm air. They can also help you save on utilities.

Side view at diverse group of children sitting in row at school classroom and using laptops...

PC Laptops

5 Internet Safety Tips for Kids

Read these tips about internet safety for kids so that your children can use this tool for learning and discovery in positive ways.

Women hold card for scanning key card to access Photocopier Security system concept...

Les Olson

Why Printer Security Should Be Top of Mind for Your Business

Connected printers have vulnerable endpoints that are an easy target for cyber thieves. Protect your business with these tips.

Modern chandelier hanging from a white slanted ceiling with windows in the backgruond...

Lighting Design

Light Up Your Home With These Top Lighting Trends for 2024

Check out the latest lighting design trends for 2024 and tips on how you can incorporate them into your home.

Technician woman fixing hardware of desktop computer. Close up....

PC Laptops

Tips for Hassle-Free Computer Repairs

Experiencing a glitch in your computer can be frustrating, but with these tips you can have your computer repaired without the stress.

Close up of finger on keyboard button with number 11 logo...

PC Laptops

7 Reasons Why You Should Upgrade Your Laptop to Windows 11

Explore the benefits of upgrading to Windows 11 for a smoother, more secure, and feature-packed computing experience.

Hero aviator of the Tuskegee Airmen honored at Arlington burial