Charles McGee, a legendary aviator and one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen from World War II, was officially promoted to brigadier general on Tuesday, President Trump said at his State of the Union address.
Trump pinned the stars on McGee’s shoulders in the Oval Office earlier that day, and said he signed a bill promoting him a few weeks ago. McGee turned 100 years old on Dec. 7.
“After more than 130 combat missions in World War II, [McGee] came back to a country still struggling for civil rights and went on to serve America in Korea and Vietnam,” Trump said. “General McGee: Our nation salutes you.”
Trump also recognized McGee’s great-grandson Iain Lanphier, a 13-year-old eighth grader from Arizona, who he called “one of the Space Force’s youngest potential recruits.”
“Iain has always dreamed of going to space,” Trump said. “He was first in his class and among the youngest at an aviation academy. He aspires to go to the Air Force Academy, and then, he has his eye on the Space Force. As Iain says, ‘Most people look up at space, I want to look down on the world.’”
McGee earned his pilot’s wings on June 30, 1943, and became one of the nation’s first black fighter pilots as part of the storied Tuskegee Airmen. At the time, segregation severely limited opportunities for black aviators, and many felt black people didn’t have what it took to be pilots.
But McGee and his comrades in the 332nd Fighter Group, flying P-51 Mustang fighters emblazoned with a distinctive red tail, proved them wrong as they escorted bombers over Europe. They became known and respected for their exceptional fighting skills, and helped pave the way for the military to desegregate after the war.
“That term [Red Tails] has stuck with us since then, because many of the bomber pilots did not know that the Red Tails were black pilots,” McGee told reporters at an event in Washington in 2017. “We were trained well, we were prepared for the opportunities, and although we were segregated, fortunately the record we established helped the Air Force ... to say ‘We need to integrate.’ We accomplished something that helped lead the country. We didn’t call it civil rights. It was American opportunity.”
He flew 409 combat missions in his three wars between 1944 and 1968, and his decorations include the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star, the Air Medal and the Presidential Unit Citation. He retired in 1973.
President George W. Bush presented McGee with the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007, and he was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2011.
And the legacy of McGee and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen is still felt in the Air Force. In 2019, the Air Force announced it would name the new T-7A training aircraft the Red Hawk, in honor of the red-tailed airplanes the Tuskegee Airmen flew.
In an Air Force release, McGee expressed his gratitude at becoming a general — but wished that it had happened earlier.
“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.”
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein also saluted McGee.
“Charles McGee is a genuine American hero whose courage in combat helped save a nation, and whose legacy is felt to this day across the entire U.S. Air Force,” Goldfein said. “It was an honor to witness his promotion and to thank him yet again for paving the way for today’s Air Force. The Tuskegee Airmen continue to inspire generations of Americans.”
McGee was also one of four 100-year-old veterans who took part in the coin toss at the Super Bowl in Miami, Florida, two days before the State of the Union.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.