March 17, 2016 / 9:18 PM / 3 years ago

Tuskegee Airman reflects on all-black unit's founding 75 years ago

(In paragraph 9, corrects to show that McGee is not a record-holder for combat flights in paragraph 12, corrects “332nd Fighter Group” to “Tuskegee Airmen”)

By Kia Johnson

BETHESDA, Md. (Reuters) - Seventy-five years after the founding of the all-black Tuskegee Airmen, one of its most decorated pilots says the pioneering unit showed African-Americans’ fighting worth at a time of deep racial discrimination.

Retired Colonel Charles McGee, 97, said he and fellow members of the 99th Fighter Squadron had no hesitation about fighting during World War Two and showing white America that black aviators could do the job.

“They say ‘African-American’ or ‘black,’ but we’re American and our country was at war,” McGee told Reuters.

“We were just as interested in supporting that effort as anybody else at that time and so we turned our back on the fact that there was segregation.”

McGee’s unit was formed on March 22, 1941, as the first all-black aviation unit of the racially segregated U.S. armed forces.

Tuskegee airman and U.S. Air Force fighter pilot Colonel Charles McGee reminisces about his career as a military pilot at his home in Bethesda, Maryland February 17, 2016. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

The 99th and subsequent squadrons became known as the Tuskegee Airmen for the Alabama airfield where they trained.

Known as the “Red Tails’ for their aircraft markings, the Tuskegee Airmen’s 332nd Fighter Group became such respected pilots that all-white bomber squadrons requested them as escorts over Nazi Germany.

McGee, a native of Cleveland, graduated from flight school in 1943. He began flying missions the following year out of bases in Italy and shot down one German fighter plane.

During his 30-year military career, McGee flew 409 fighter combat missions in World War Two, Korea and Vietnam.

The Tuskegee Airmen’s success helped lay the groundwork for the civil rights movement and influenced President Harry Truman’s decision to desegregate the armed forces in 1948.

“That was a good feeling, certainly, one that we still are proud of - that we were able to overcome the circumstances that were part of policy and help bring about a new day,” said McGee.

President George Bush honored the Tuskegee Airmen in 2007 with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award given by Congress.

Slideshow (2 Images)

When asked about the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, McGee said circumstances should not be an excuse for not succeeding.

“The legacy I feel we leave is that our young people, regardless of their circumstances ... that they can achieve if they believe it,” he said.

After his military career, McGee worked as a business executive and an airport manager in Kansas City, Missouri. He is a former president of the Tuskegee Airmen association and now lives in Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C.

Writing by Ian Simpson; Editing by Dan Grebler

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