Three-war veteran recalls segregation of WWII airmen

Thursday, May 18th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Radio silence was strict and rendezvous were arranged by code.

So when American bomber crews flying missions over Europe spotted red-tailed fighters approaching, they didn't know what color the pilots were. They just knew those P-47 Thunderbolts were friends.

"They just knew they had escorts out there," Charles McGee said.

McGee was in one of those Thunderbolts, flying with the 332nd Fighter Group. The Air Corps' all-black -- at that time "all-Negro" -- fighter group was known as the "Tuskegee Airmen" because they trained at the military's segregated base in Alabama, the Tuskegee Institute.

McGee went on to become one of the few Air Force pilots who fought in three wars -- World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He retired as a colonel.

McGee, 80, visited Oklahoma recently for a planned ride in a vintage P-51 Mustang fighter that was a part of a Guthrie air show. The ride was canceled because of overcast skies.

When McGee and fellow Tuskegee pilots entered the war in 1943, they flew from a base for blacks only. They lived in barracks for blacks and worked with black maintenance crews. There were even reports of American military facilities where German POWs were welcome while the Negro pilots weren't.

In the air, McGee said, black pilots were just pilots. The segregation kept black pilots from meeting white ones, at least in person.

"I didn't have any contact with them," retired Maj. Gen. Stanley Newman said. "I was never even in the same sky with them." However, he heard talk about the Negro pilots. It was all negative -- things like they avoided combat or they couldn't fly as well as white pilots.

"It was just nasty stuff," Newman said, and it was secondhand scuttlebutt that couldn't be confirmed or refuted.

Newman recalls a fellow white pilot who entered the war saying he'd never fly with the black pilots.

"Turned out he did and became a great supporter," he said. "All they needed was the opportunity to show what they could do."

Tuskegee Airmen put as many bombs on target as other units, McGee said. They were the only fighter group that could claim to have never lost a bomber in their care.

Their commander made it clear the 332nd pilots' mission was to guard bombers, not to wander off in search of coveted air-to-air "kills" of enemy fighters, McGee said.

Such dog fighting is hard for any fighter pilot to resist, they say, and pilots have been said to abandon ground attack missions in search of airborne prey.

"I do know of cases of pilots throwing away their bombs because they heard there were enemy aircraft in the air," McGee said.

McGee downed one German ME-109 in 1944, near the end of the war, but he said Tuskegee Airmen had less kills than many other units because they were assigned shore patrols, escorts or other missions not as likely to encounter enemy aircraft. Most missions are that way. Most missions Newman and McGee later would fly in Korea and McGee would fly in Vietnam were "interdiction," ground support. These are more dangerous because of dense and sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons, Newman said.

Still, Newman said, today's "beyond visual range" war fare, with weapons that can acquire and destroy at great distances before the target knows what's happening, are "a lot more scary. It's a different world. It's 'Star Wars."'

It's still pilot versus pilot, just as it was in McGee and Newman's first combat in the closing years of WWII. Of course, by that time, enemy aircraft were getting too scarce for young pilots eager to confirm their opinions of themselves.

"I got into the war too late to see very many German aircraft," Newman said.

For fighter pilots, facing the enemy is what it's all about.

"We just all wanted to mix it up," he said. "Every one of us felt like we could beat anybody else, including our squadron mates. We were just young and stupid, I guess."

Any fighter pilot, white or black, red or green, is trained to feel that way, Newman said. He'd better. Feel vulnerable and you are dead.

"If you ever went out with a feeling like that, you were in trouble," he said.