It was the 1950s, and Charles McGee, a flier in the U.S. Air Force, was considering a career as a civilian pilot. The problem was that McGee is African-American, and the country’s airlines weren’t hiring black people as pilots.
The airlines’ loss ended up being the Air Force’s gain. McGee would continue his career in the military — a tenure that lasted for more than 30 years, during which he would fly a record 409 fighter combat missions in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
“It turns out, I kept getting assignments that I couldn’t have written a script for, they were such better opportunities,” said Lt. Col. McGee, who turned 96 in December.
It all started when he enlisted in the Army in 1942 and a year later became part of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first group of black military aviators in American history.
Officially, they formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the Army Armed Forces.
On Thursday, McGee and 90-year-old Lt. Col. George Hardy, another retired member of the Tuskegee Airmen, were at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans for the opening of the exhibit “Fighting for the Right to Fight: African American Experiences in World War II.”
The two were interviewed during an opening reception and ceremony by ABC’s “Good Morning America” anchor Robin Roberts and her sister, WWL-TV anchor Sally-Ann Roberts, the daughters of another Tuskegee Airman, Col. Lawrence Roberts.
“Looking at Col. McGee and Col. Hardy is like looking at Col. Roberts. They’re cut from the same cloth,” Robin Roberts said. “When people ask the key to the Roberts women’s success, we say being the daughters of Col. Lawrence E. Roberts.”
Hundreds of people gathered in the museum’s Boeing Center to hear the history of the high-profile servicemen and how they become pilots.
For decades, African-Americans weren’t allowed to fly for the U.S. military because of a notion that black men lacked qualifications for combat duty. But thanks to pressure from civil rights organizations, an all African-American squadron was formed in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1941.
They became known as the Tuskegee Airmen, and over time they helped dispel notions that black fliers were any less capable than white ones.
Aside from pilots, the Tuskegee Airmen included navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors and other personnel who kept the planes in the air.
For some, becoming a member of the Tuskegee Airmen wasn’t about promoting the idea of equality. It was about becoming a pilot or finding a chance for advancement when opportunities for young black men were scarce.
McGee, for example, was in college when he decided to take the examination to go into aviation for the military. He figured it would be better than being on the ground, should he get drafted.
Hardy, who was a senior in high school when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, said he decided to join after “having time to think about it.”
“It wasn’t a matter of civil rights action. I wanted to join the service and be able to fly,” Hardy said. “In the moment, it was an opportunity.”
Nonetheless, the Tuskegee Airmen became symbols of bravery and skill as they garnered stellar flying records. Hardy, for example, spent more than 28 years on active duty, flying in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and earned two engineering degrees during his time in the service.
Pilots like McGee and Hardy showed that black men could succeed in roles that required advanced training — a breakthrough that led to African-Americans being able to break other racial barriers abroad and eventually at home.
As part of Thursday’s ceremony, the museum also welcomed an authentic, newly restored P-51D Mustang fighter, made to resemble the 332nd Fighter Group’s Red Tail plane flown by Tuskegee Airman Roscoe Brown.
The newly painted plane, which was restored thanks to support from museum trustee Todd Ricketts, replaces a replica P-51 in a part of the museum called the U.S. Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center.
The aircraft itself became a symbol of Allied success during World War II because with it, American forces were able to “dramatically reduce” their loss of life, according to Tom Czekanski, the World War II Museum’s senior curator and restoration manager.
“P-51 Mustangs were essential to the Allies gaining control of European airspace,” Czekanski said. “The P-51 provided U.S. Army Air Forces with a high-performance, high-altitude, long-range fighter that could escort heavy bomber formations to Berlin and back.”
The plane’s dedication preceded a “Fighting for the Right to Fight” symposium featuring John Morrow and Dan Haulman, who spoke about the evolution of black service members and their recognition throughout the 20th century.
Former Mississippi Gov. William Winter also spoke, as did Mississippi civil rights activist Charles Evers and journalist Hodding Carter III. They discussed how America changed during the civil rights movement after World War II.
But the night ended with the two stars of the evening, the Tuskegee Airmen themselves.
McGee recalled the first flight he ever took — a feeling he said was “indescribable.”
“To take off at sunset, being able to climb to 40,000 feet and see sunset again, see the stars come out … it made me realize we human beings are just one small aspect in a mighty grand world,” McGee said. “We don’t even think about it. We look up at the sky and don’t realize what it’s all about.”
“Fighting for the Right to Fight” is on display at the National World War II Museum through May 30. After Memorial Day, the exhibit will embark on a two-year national tour. The museum’s P-51 Mustang will remain on permanent display.