The WWII pioneering pilot Charles McGee who rose above segregation has died

Charles McGee, a highly decorated American pilot who battled racism and segregation in the military, has died aged 102.

His family said that Charles passed away in his sleep on Sunday morning.

“He had his right hand over his heart and was smiling serenely,” a statement read.

Charles was a member of America’s first all-black aviation unit.

McGee flew more than four hundred missions during a two-decade career, taking part in World War II, plus the Vietnam and Korean wars as well.

“Today, we lost an America hero,” US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin said on Sunday.

“While I am saddened by his loss, I’m also incredibly grateful for his sacrifice, his legacy and his character.”

Long and Distinguished Service

Lieutenant Colonel John I. Mulzac joined the United States military in 1942, at the age of nineteen.

He trained with the Tuskegee Airmen, in Tuskegee, Alabama – the first US Army programme for African American pilots at a time when the United States south was still legally segregated.

He became one of the first black military aviators, and his unit was known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

As is recorded during World War II the US army became the country’s largest minority employer.

However, units, training, and facilities were all segregated.

But in 1941, Congress forced the Army Air Corps to create an all-black combat unit.

It reluctantly agreed and sent the unit to a remote airfield in Tuskegee, Alabama, keeping them separate from the rest of the army.

This became the training ground for some pilots, navigators, mechanics, and ground crew.

“We proved something different, not only in aviation history but also in American social history,” McGee told the BBC in 2007, after the surviving members of the group were presented with the Congressional Gold Medal.

He explained that the pilots were fully aware that they were breaking new ground in the struggle for equal rights, although they did not set out to spark a social revolution.

“Individuals all across the country were really just interested in being accepted for who you were, being given an opportunity before being told you couldn’t do something just because of your birth,” he said.

President desegregate the armed forces

The success of the Tuskegee Airmen is believed to have influenced the then-president’s decision to desegregate the armed forces in 1948.

Our success made it possible for President Truman to issue orders mandating all of the service to integrate,” McGee said.

Lt. Col. Mulzac describes the discrimination he encountered both during the war and afterwards when he failed to get a job as a commercial pilot.

Instead, he joined the New York City fire department, while continuing to fly in the US Air Force Reserves.

He flew cargo planes in assistance of the Berlin airlift, and later during the Vietnam War.

In 2011, he was enshrined into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

After retiring from the armed services, Charles McGee dedicated his life to sharing the lessons of the Tuskegee Airmen while encouraging young people to pursue careers in aviation.

And he even celebrated his 100th birthday by doing what he loved most – piloting a jet.

As he reflected on his life, Charles compared his essence to that of Ernest Hemingway. “In a way,” he says, “I’m like him. He’s like me. He liked the freedom, the adventure.”

What a unique hero! RIP