Decorated Pilot and Tuskegee Airman Charles McGee Dead at 102: 'A Living Legend,' Family Says

·3 min read
Charles McGee
Charles McGee

Pete Marovich For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Charles McGee, a decorated military pilot and Tuskegee Airman, has died. He was 102.

On Sunday morning, McGee died in his sleep, a family spokesperson told Reuters. "He had his right hand over his heart and was smiling serenely," his youngest daughter, Yvonne McGee, said in a statement.

"McGee was a living legend known for his kind-hearted, and humble nature, who saw positivity at every turn," his family added in the statement, per CNN. "He spent the last half century inspiring future generations to pursue careers in aviation, but equally important, he encouraged others to be the best they could be, to follow their dreams, and to persevere through all challenges."

McGee is survived by his three children, 10 grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren, and a great-great-grandchild. His wife Frances preceded him in death in 1994.

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Charles McGee
Charles McGee

Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

RELATED: Tuskegee Airman Charles McGee Celebrates His 100th Birthday by Flying a Plane

Born on Dec. 7, 1919, in Cleveland, Ohio, McGee was called to service in 1942 when he became one of the first Black military aviators known as the Tuskegee Airmen, the Associated Press reported.

The Tuskegee Airmen were the famed group of Black military pilots who fought in World War II. The success of the Tuskegee Airmen helped influence President Harry Truman's decision to desegregate the U.S. Armed Forces in 1948.

McGee successfully completed 409 air combat missions across three wars — World War II, Korea and Vietnam — according to CNN. In total, McGee completed three decades of active service.

Throughout his life, McGee has received numerous accolades. In 2007, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, and in 2020 he was promoted to the one-star rank of brigadier general through a measure signed by then-President Donald Trump, per the New York Times. Back in 2011, McGee was also inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio.

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In a 2016 interview, McGee told PEOPLE that, despite all of his accomplishments, he's not concerned with his personal legacy.

"It's not personal recognition that I seek," he said at the time. "I want to pass on to the young people of today that you can't let your circumstances be an excuse for not achieving."

Even with segregation in the U.S. Armed Forces at the time McGee was a pilot, he said the airmen did their best to put aside their frustrations in order to prove themselves.

"It wasn't pleasant, but we didn't look at the negative," McGee told PEOPLE. "We looked at the positive and that was we were given the chance to prove that that thinking was wrong."

RELATED: Veterans from World War II's All-Black Aviation Unit on How They Shattered Racial Stereotypes: 'We Proved That Thinking Wrong'

On social media, various political figures paid tribute to McGee after news of his death was made public.

"Today, we lost an American hero, Brigadier General Charles McGee. A member of the Tuskegee Airmen, he completed over 400 missions during World War II, Korea, and Vietnam," tweeted Vice President Kamala Harris. "I had the honor of calling him last month on his 102nd birthday to thank him for his service to our nation."

"When Charles McGee was asked what he was most proud of, he said: 'my work as a Tuskegee Airman that helped bring down racial barriers and defeat the Nazis,'" said newly-elected New York City Mayor Eric Adams. "Rest in power General, and thank you. We've got the watch from here."

Added Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III: "Today, we lost an American hero. Charles McGee, Brigadier General and one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airman, passed at the age of 102. While I am saddened by his loss, I'm also incredibly grateful for his sacrifice, his legacy, and his character. Rest in peace, General."