Tuskegee Airman recognized by Trump had post-war training at Chanute

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Charles McGee was promoted to brigadier general by President Donald Trump during a ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House Tuesday. That evening he was recognized by Trump during the State of the Union address.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Rantoul’s Chanute Air Force Base is known as the first home of the Tuskegee Airmen — the decorated all-black group of fighter pilots who distinguished themselves in combat during World War II.

Traffic signs along highways entering Champaign County announce it as such.

Only eight members of the fighting corps are still alive, including Brig. Charles E. McGee.

This week has been a whirlwind for McGee, who did post-war training at Chanute. He was one of four 100-year-old military veterans who took part in the coin toss for Sunday’s Super Bowl in Miami, and on Tuesday stepped into the Oval Office at the White House, where President Donald Trump promoted him to brigadier general.

“At first I would say, ‘wow,’ but looking back, it would have been nice to have had that during active duty, but it didn’t happen that way,” McGee said. “But still, the recognition of what was accomplished, certainly, I am pleased and proud to receive that recognition, and hopefully it will help me carry on as we try to motivate our youth in aviation and space career opportunities.”

That evening, Trump recognized McGee during the State of the Union address.

“General McGee, our nation salutes you. Thank you, sir,” Trump said.

McGee has a number of ties to Champaign County.

Mark Hanson, who was curator of the former Chanute Air Museum, said McGee trained at Chanute in 1948 when he took a 10-month course on aircraft maintnenace.

“He would have been someone who, I believe, would have supervised the guys who were working on the airplanes,” said Hanson, who met McGee years later when he visited the air museum and was struck by his friendly personality.

While the Tuskegee Airmen did start at Chanute with training of support personnel in mechanics, communications, armament, engineering and officers’ corps, the Army later opted to have the black pilots train near the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Prior to that, the conventional wisdom was that blacks would take longer to train than their white counterparts in technical jobs. It turns out it took them less time than the whites to become mechanics. It led to many becoming pilots. McGee was one of them.

The Bethesda, Md., resident — an engineering major at the University of Illinois — turned 22 on the day the United States entered World War II. He left for Alabama 11 months later to train with a group of Army Air Corps cadets who would become the first black fighter pilots in the country.

At the University of Illinois, McGee was a member of the Army ROTC, the Pershing Rifles drill team and the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.

He met his future wife, Frances, who was a native of Champaign, at the U of I.

McGee served in a number of leadership roles. He became base operations officer at Clark Field in the Philippines. After graduating from the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, McGee was promoted to lieutenant colonel at Richards-Gebauer Air Base in Kansas City, Mo. He commanded the 7230th Support Suqdron, which ended up in Italy, supporting the Jupiter Missile program, then returned to headquarters.

During the Korean War, McGee served with the 67th Fighter Bomber Squadron and flew 100 combat missions. He led the 16th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron during the Vietnam War and flew 173 missions. In 1972, he became commander of Richards-Gebaur.

McGee returned to college following his military retirement and earned a degree in business administration from Columbia College in 1978.

He served in a variety of civilian roles, including as Kansas City’s downtown airport manager. He also served in leadership posts in several organizations he supported, including the Boy Scouts.

McGee, who retired in 1973 as a colonel, had a military career that reached across three decades. He flew 409 combat missions during World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War. He was presented the Distinguished Flying Cross, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Air Medal and the Presidential Unit Citation will serving.

In 2007, former president George W. Bush presented McGee the Congressional Gold Medal, and in 2011, he was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

Last year, McGee served as grand marshal of the Champaign County Freedom Celebration parade. He was in Champaign to attend a family reunion.