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Why Red Tails?

Aerial Kill over Italy

Thoughts on patriotism and the future of the United States

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McGee was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1919. After 3rd grade he moved to Illinois. He also spent some time in Iowa. McGee was able to learn some engineering and other useful trades through the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). He saved enough money to enter into a state school. He entered ROTC at Illinois and was also a member of the Pershing Rifles there. He received a draft card. McGee entered military service in 1942. He swore into the enlisted reserve and was assigned as a cadet to the Army Air Corps training program. The opportunity for McGee to join the Army Air Corps came about because of the pressure put on the Air Corps by men like McGee who were questioning and proving themselves constantly. Out of the Army's idea to "experiment" with black soldiers, came men like McGee. The training site selected was in Alabama near Tuskeegee. McGee had not witnessed segregation in the North like he would encounter in the South. Immediately McGee recognized the differences and adjusted his lifestyle accordingly. McGee had to be moved to a different, segregated car when he went through St. Louis, Missouri. The airfield they trained on was built specifically for them. Also the standards for McGee and the other black men were the same across the board. They taught what needed to be taught without seeing color and because of that the training was of a high quality. The leadership was also good. If someone was not seen as an adequate leader then they were replaced. One of their officers was very understanding. He realized that black soldiers could perform as well as whites and that they just needed a chance. Many of the black soldiers McGee served with were excited to serve. He and the other men received all of their training at one place, whereas the white soldiers might get shipped all over the country. McGee says that because of all the training being in one place it helped the unit bond.

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Leadership attitudes in McGee's unit helped to form a bond between the men. McGee's first flight was in the PT-17 [Annotator's Notes: military trainer aircraft]. It was a biplane and McGee fell in love with aviation from there on. His stomach was a little queasy the first few flights so the surgeon advised him to stop eating fried foods in the morning before his flight. McGee began his training in November of 1942. He was originally in class 43G. However because of his ROTC, he skipped preflight and was able to graduate and get his wings in June of 1943. It was roughly eight months of training.At first they only authorized one squadron which would later become the 99th Pursuit Squadron. The Army did not have immediate faith in the African American pilots, that is why they only authorized the 99th. McGee only started training after the 99th was authorized. The 99th went overseas in April of 1943. After the Army realized that the 99th could fly, the need for replacements grew and that is how McGee was put into a unit that would learn how to fly. Additional squadrons were formed that trained on single engine planes. McGee became a member of one of those squadrons and graduated in June of 1943. They immediately began training but Tuskegee airfield was packed. They practiced flying all around Tuskegee. They also practiced gunnery. They were combat ready by December of 1943.They were shipped overseas out of Camp Patrick Henry in Virginia. McGee's unit was sent directly to Italy. McGee trained in the P-39 [Annotator's Note: Airacobra, American fighter plane] and did coastal and harbor patrol work. Later they joined up with the 15th Air Force and began escorting bombers. McGee enjoyed Italy, however living in a tent city in the mud took some getting used to. McGee remembers taking apart wooden crates and laying out a floor so that the conditions in their tent would be better. He learned how to take a shower out of his helmet. It gave him a sense of what it was like to be a ground soldier. McGee began to use the P-47 Thunderbolt to escort B-17s and B-24s [Annotator's Note: American bombers]. They flew from the liberation of France to the surrender of Germany. They hit targets throughout the Slavic countries, Germany, and to the east of Germany. Losses were heavy because of German anti-aircraft fire.

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McGee liked the P-51 [Annotator's Note: Mustang, American fighter plane] because it had more speed, range, and altitude then the other planes. McGee's first combat flight was fairly routine. It was an escort mission. McGee felt as if the P-39 [Annotator's Note: Airacobra, American fighter plane] was not the ideal fighter interceptor. The reason being its slow climbing rate. His work on his first combat flight was fairly routine. His missions got increasingly harder because of the ferocity of the German antiaircraft defense network. McGee believes it was easier for the fighters because they had free reign to change altitude, the bombers unfortunately had to stay in tight formation and maintain altitude in order to maintain bombing accuracy. McGee's first realization of combat was when he saw intense antiaircraft fire for the first time. McGee ended up in a dogfight and shot down a German plane in August of 1944. McGee was dispatched to intercept German fighters. The bombing target was an airfield. The dogfights take place fairly quickly. After it was over McGee rejoined the formation. A dogfight happens very quickly and McGee actually surprised himself and realized that his training was good because of how he reacted. In Naples [Annotator's Note: Naples, Italy]. Colonel Edward Glee was the commander of the 302nd Fighter Squadron. McGee started as a 2nd Lieutenant and by the end of the war had become a flight leader and a captain. Each squadron put up 16 aircraft. McGee was a part of the lead flight many times although it rotated. This meant that McGee would sometimes go out in the lead, other times he would be in the third or fourth wave. McGee logged over four hundred hours and one hundred and thirty six missions. About fifty of the missions were long range escort missions. Some of the long range missions were strafing missions. McGee's longest mission was about six hours.

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When McGee first got to Italy, a lot of work was done trying to improve the living conditions. They still operated separately from white units in Italy. There was a rest camp in Naples overlooking the harbor, there were times when they utilized that. Eventually the living conditions got better as the men became settled, same went with the food. It helped that they were close to the port because it meant that they were close to the supplies.McGee notes the incredible amount of support that was behind the lines. McGee was impressed with the Italian reception of the black troops. They treated McGee like any other person and there was no racial prejudice. A lot of the bombers had no idea that the men flying to protect them were black. The pilots of the bombers asked the fighter groups to mark their planes so that they could effectively identify the men who were trying to save them. The Tuskegee airmen had a distinctive red mark on the back of their planes.McGee remembers the leadership stressing that pilots not go "happy hunting." In other words the bomber pilots wanted the fighter pilots to stick close, even if the fighter felt like he could pull away from the group for an easy kill. McGee notes that a lot of the pilots from the bomber groups have since made the effort to thank McGee and the other black pilots for the job that they did helping to save their lives. McGee appreciated the reception he and his men got in other countries yet when they came home they were not greeted well by whites. The contrast at the time was striking.McGee notes that his unit helped to dispel the idea that blacks could not serve. All they needed was an opportunity. When they got back to the United States they were assigned to Tuskegee. After McGee graduated and left for war they began a twin engine bomber training program at Tuskegee. With his experience in the air considered invaluable, McGee was assigned to train the twin engine bomber pilots. The men who were returning from combat slowly began to replace the white instructors. This was the case all the way up until 1946 when the training camp closed. McGee had been overseas for eleven months before he went back to the states to teach. McGee had been helping to train men who were supposed to go to the Pacific, however that never happened because of the end of the war.

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Col. Davis became the commander. When the Air Force became a separate service they reactivated the 332nd Fighter Group to fly P-47s. They were assigned to tactical air command. The Air Force made the decision to use people based on their training and their performance, not the color of their skin. President Harry Truman issued order 9981 which desegregated the armed forces. When McGee left Tuskegee going up to Lockburn he was assistant base operations officer in charge of operations and training. McGee had been an instrument instructor at one point as well. He was told that he should have other skills besides flying. He went to school for ten months for aircraft maintenance officers training. Thereafter most of the assignments he had were with operations and maintenance. McGee was fortunate to actively fly twenty-seven of his thirty years. McGee had been escorting B-24s [Annotator’s Note: American bombers] over the target area. The bombers were attacked by a small group of ME-109s [Annotator’s Note: German fighter planes]. McGee's flight element was dispatched to fight off the German fighters. They started off at about 20,000 feet. One of the German fighters passed through the bombers and McGee and his men dive after him to get him away from the bombers. One of the German pilots dove for the ground and McGee went after him. A minute or two later McGee was almost on the ground. They could see the damage that was done by some of the bombing. McGee was attempting to get a bead on him and eventually the German made a turn and he was able to get a bead on him and fire on him. McGee then looked to make sure that no one was behind him. McGee was in a P-51 [Annotator’s Note: American P-51 Mustang fighter planes]. They had gotten the planes in the early part of July. McGee characterizes flying as being a very exhilarating thing to do. Everything goes through your mind very quickly, but the training takes over and helps. McGee was escorting B-17s or B-24s depending on the mission. The B-17 was able to fly higher; the B-24 flew a little bit lower. The P-51 was the favored aircraft for B-17 escort missions. McGee never had fun with the B-17 pilots when they were flying. It was strictly business. The red tails on the P-51s were important so the B-17 gun crews could identify friendlies, it was also important so that in a fight other American fighters could recognize each other. They did not play around too much around the bombers because the gun crews were trigger happy.

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When McGee first got to Italy, a lot of work and activity was based around survival. The men would improve their living space when they could in their free time. At this point they were still separated from white units. He recalls a few times when he went to a rest camp for fliers. The black pilots had their own rest camp in Naples. It was a place for pilots to decompress for a few days after they had flown a few missions.McGee never had an aircraft damaged when he was flying over Europe. When McGee flew over Korea and Vietnam, his planes took a few hits. He recalls attacking a hillside target in Korea and seeing tracers come up at his plane. Fortunately McGee only suffered a hit in the wing that time. A similar situation occurred in Vietnam. Intelligence had not let the pilots know that they were about to recon a heavily defended area. McGee took a high millimeter hit in his wing during that recon mission. He was not able to get his aircraft back to his home base but was able to find another American base to land at that was closer. July 29th, 1950 was McGee’s first flight in Korea. He actually flew his first combat missions over Korea out of Japan. In Korea He flew the F-51. It was a fighter bomber. They carried napalm and rockets. McGee flew Phantoms in Vietnam. His first jet experience was with the F-80. It was fun to fly. He commanded the 44th Fighter Squadron for two years.McGee flew with a lot of World War II pilots in Korea. In Vietnam it was a little different. Ther were only a few World War II pilots left in the service. He was a lieutenant colonel by the time he was flying in Vietnam. He trained at Shaw airbase for Vietnam. A lot of the pilots were younger guys coming up. McGee was in Vietnam from 1967-68. He experienced the Tet Offensive and that was scary for him because the ground fighting was going on all around him. McGee was able to bring invaluable skills and leadership during his post World War II career. He got along great with everyone in the military. On the social side, a lot of guys were still visibly upset that African Americans were serving. In Korea there were two black pilots that McGee came across. The black pilots were few and far between in Korea because of how the men got spread out to other units. McGee met a few black pilots who came up but were not Tuskegee airmen. McGee notes that since African Americans were ten percent of the population, the Air Force was fewer than ten percent African American. McGee believes that loyalty and patriotism are ever important for our country. Our country is very diverse and people need to work with each other and respect each other. Young folks need to be challenged as well, especially when they are getting their education. The youth needs to understand the sacrifices that people went through to forge the world that exists today.

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