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Jan 22nd 2022
IF YOU HAD wanted to find ideal military material on December 7th 1941, the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, you could hardly do better than Charles McGee. He was tall, strong, daring and engaging, the son of a minister in the Methodist Episcopal church. At DuSable high school in St Charles, Illinois, he had graduated ninth out of a class of more than 400. At the University of Illinois, where he went next (having scraped and saved, toiling in restaurants, steel mills and the Civilian Conservation Corps), his first choice was engineering, later switching to life sciences. And when the news about Pearl Harbour reached him, on his 22nd birthday, he was desperate to serve. Not as a foot soldier, slogging through mud with a rifle, as in his father’s tales of the first world war; but ideally above it all, in a fighter plane.
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There was only one problem. He was black, and therefore, according to army thinking at the time, unsuited for military service. Although African-Americans had served in the civil war and occasionally before it, the generals’ thinking since 1925 had been shaped and fixed by a study by the Army War College, “The Use of Negro Manpower in War”. This declared that black men were “very low in the scale of human evolution”. “The cranial cavity of the Negro”, the report went on, “is smaller than the white”, and his brain weighed less. He could not control himself in the face of danger “to the extent the white man can”. Though he was “jolly, docile and tractable, and lively”, he lacked initiative and resourcefulness, and if treated unkindly could become “stubborn, sullen and unruly”. They could be trained as combat troops, in separate facilities, but had to serve under a white officer. Otherwise they were good only for digging ditches, driving trucks and cooking chow.
The spirit that drove Charles McGee to his extraordinary service—409 combat missions and 6,308 flying hours in the second world war, Korea and Vietnam—was therefore not just the desire to fight for his country, but to show what African-Americans could do, given an equal chance. He didn’t see himself as a fighter for civil rights, since he preferred to ignore serenely any prejudice or name-calling he met. That was mere nonsense, young fellows’ stuff. Nor did he want to make his point by saying to whites, “You don’t like us, you don’t want us, therefore we won’t serve.” As an Eagle Scout, service was his watchword. His aim was to say, look at us: we have the same skills, or better, than you.
Serving also gave him, wonderfully, a chance to fly. Though he had never even kicked the tyre of a plane before, he fell in love so deeply that on his 100th birthday he was still flying, venturing up in a Cessna Citation and a Cirrus Vision jet. In his old service favourite, the Mustang P-51C, he adored the loops, rolls and spin, the speed and, above all, the sense of leaving noise and clutter behind and roaming free, seeing the stars come out. From up there, human beings and their petty divisions looked very, very small.
Earth was a tougher place. When he enlisted, in 1942, President Roosevelt had just ordered the creation of a new black aviation unit. The Army Air Corps, the forerunner of the air force, was horrified; pilots were the last thing black men should be. There were also not enough black mechanics to support them, since white ones could not. Reluctantly, then, the Corps began to train those black mechanics, confident they would fail. They did not, and the Mustangs were always kept as sweetly tuned as could be. But the would-be pilots were sent to be trained in Tuskegee, in fiercely segregated rural Alabama, apparently to show how impossible their bold dreams still were.
In his life so far he had met relatively little sharp prejudice. In St Charles his had been the only black family, so he attended a white school. At university, though there was racism in the town, the campus was fine. That easy state of affairs changed as soon as the train for Tuskegee crossed into the South, when they were made to leave their coach seats to sit behind the coal-cars getting cinders in their eyes; where the town was off-limits, and he had to learn quickly which local gas stations not to try. But he shrugged all that off in the joy of flying and doing his part.
In 1943 he was sent to Italy, to an airfield near Naples, where the Tuskegee Airmen had to escort B-17 bombers on raids over central Europe, chasing off swarms of Luftwaffe planes. Those were fun times. He downed one personally, sheer luck, as the pilot turned into his gun-sights. Their aircraft were customised, so the gunners could pick them out, with red tails and trim (and his own plane with his wife’s nickname, Kitten). In all the unit destroyed more than 250 enemy aircraft, 600 rail cars and dozens of boats, losing only 27 bombers in 179 forays, well below the average. The white bomber pilots, scandalised at first to think that their protectors were black, came to want the Red Tails there. They were invaluable in Vietnam, too, where he flew reconnaissance missions.
So he had made his point, at least in war. At home and in peace, though the armed forces were legally desegregated in 1948, it was another story. White pilots were feted, and recruited for the growing airline industry; the Tuskegee Airmen were soon forgotten, heading back to the largely menial jobs they had held before. Some even destroyed their uniforms. He went on flying, training a new generation of African-American pilots, but also found himself drawn into non-violent rule-breaking in the officers’ clubs he was still, in practice, barred from joining: invading whites-only bowling alleys, barging into whites-only cinemas. There were still a lot of folks out there who needed to be shown.
He also kept the Tuskegee Airmen’s story alive, working with several non-profit Red Tails projects to organise lectures and visit schools. Its members, increasingly frail, proudly wore their red jackets to speak of scarcely credible things expressed and perpetrated in America, not so many decades before. Their motto was, and is, “Rise above adversity”. When it was his turn, he spoke with a gentle smile of satisfaction. Things were not perfect yet. But the Red Tails had served, and their service had proved the potential of every African-American. ■
This article appeared in the Obituary section of the print edition under the headline “What the Red Tails did”
This content was originally published here.