Charles McGee faced adversity at home as much as abroad

1/28/2022 9:38:00 PM

One of the few survivors of the all-black “Tuskegee Airmen” died on January 16th, aged 102

Flying in 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

One of the few survivors of the all-black “Tuskegee Airmen” died on January 16th, aged 102

.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.

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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. Despite this, many venues - including shops such as Sainsbury’s, John Lewis, Waitrose and Morrisons - will ask people to wear masks in their stores. 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”. Commuters at Birmingham New Street committed to widespread mask-wearing, with almost half still wearing them around the station and many saying they would put one on when they got on a train. This declared that black men were “very low in the scale of human evolution”. Sadiq Khan has also insisted that omicron still poses a significant threat to the capital, despite figures showing that London has the lowest coronavirus case rate in the country. “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”. He has also called on the Government to keep them in shops and indoor venues.’ Photograph: Andrew Fox/The Guardian “I think I’ll keep wearing one for the foreseeable. 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. In contrast, the rest of the regions are seeing case rates between 926 and 1,258 per 100,000 people. Otherwise they were good only for digging ditches, driving trucks and cooking chow. At this time of year there are loads of germs going round with the kids going back to school, and I like not having a cold. 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. Hugh Osmond, who founded the Punch Taverns group and has invested in a number of the capital’s restaurants, said: “Being told to wear masks on tubes and buses creates a psychological message that people should still be fearful and not go back to work and not travel into the capital.

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. "It’s a destructive message which keeps people away from what they would normally do, such as visiting pubs and restaurants, and other activities.’ Photograph: Andrew Fox/The Guardian “I’m no longer wearing one. 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.” Other industries, despite the impact of restrictions on footfall and the profitability of the sector, also urged venues to keep masks in place. His aim was to say, look at us: we have the same skills, or better, than you. We can’t keep restricting our lives for every strain of coronavirus,” said 57-year-old Steve Horne.

Serving also gave him, wonderfully, a chance to fly. “As restrictions ease, we continue to ask theatregoers to wear face coverings throughout our buildings unless exempt, to protect our hard-working staff, performers and fellow audience members,” he said. 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. The night economy, such as clubs -one of the hardest hit by the pandemic - welcomed the dropping of the rules, sating it had been a “debilitating and divisive mitigation”.” In the capital, mayor Sadiq Khan has said Londoners must keep donning their masks on public transport, and in Waterloo train station only a handful of people were spotted flouting the rules. From up there, human beings and their petty divisions looked very, very small. Earth was a tougher place. He added that “many businesses are now concerned that they will struggle to survive beyond February”.

When he enlisted, in 1942, President Roosevelt had just ordered the creation of a new black aviation unit. She recently got her booster jab but said she “would like to respect others who might not have had all their vaccinations yet”. 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. “In Singapore, you would be fined if you are not wearing a mask,” said Hudson. 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. With advice to work from home now eased, Transport for London reported a small uptick in travellers on Thursday. 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. City of London workers were slowly returning to the office .

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. When the Guardian visited the Charing Cross branch of Waterstones, which no longer had posters on mask requirements, all of the nine shoppers wore face coverings. 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. But around the corner in Tesco Express numbers were much lower – there was one mask-wearer to six unmasked. 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. “Coronavirus hasn’t gone away, it’s still very much in evidence. 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. We’re going to the Hippodrome theatre, so we’ll almost certainly wear them in there. 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. “What’s the harm in a little bit of fabric to keep you well?” Topics.

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" .