Tuskegee Airmen and Chinese Canadian war veterans share stories of overcoming racial prejudice
Colonel Charles McGee looks thoughtful as he reflects on his story en route to UBC for Red Tails, Dragon Tails, a summit of Chinese Canadian and African American soldiers who fought for their country during a time of severe discrimination.
"See, the basic military policy at the time was to exclude certain people, saying that because of your colour at birth, you didn't have the capability or intelligence to fight," he said.
When McGee was 22, he was a sharp-minded engineering sophomore at the University of Illinois, and one of the rare African Americans accepted into college at the time. He chose to risk everything to serve his country in the war effort, despite the fact that people of colour were excluded from the military.
"I joined because it gave the opportunity to dispel all those things, to show that what they called 'fact' was, in fact, all just a generalization."
Today, the 93-year-old old Colonel is a living legend. He's one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, the African American pilots, navigators and crew who shattered the popular belief -- reinforced by official reports -- that black people were physically and psychologically unfit for any combat roles, let alone fly an airplane.
McGee and others not only learned to fly, but took on dangerous missions such as escorting bombers and protecting them from enemy fire. He joined the all-black 332nd Fighter Group, also known as the "Red Tails" because of the distinct red paint on the tail section of their air crafts. Despite ongoing discrimination, McGee's group was so effective in combat that they became known as the "Red-Tailed Angels" to many allies.
"Not all of the bombers knew that the Red Tails were black pilots. They knew the 'Red Tails' were giving them great support, but they didn't know who was flying," he said with a quiet laugh.
Col. Charles McGee
McGee and other pilots of colour qualified for the Air Corps in 1942. Since then, he's been to 409 fighter combat missions in three wars -- the highest three-war total of any pilot in the U.S. history.
But he's reticent to talk about his past, revealing just a few details, such as being called up for duty just two days after his wedding ceremony, and having to learn some Italian to work with Italian pilots.
To Col. Dick Toliver, it's no surprise: he met Col. McGee as a young captain in the Air Force and worked in the same unit with him in Germany for years, never hearing a word about his past.
Col. Dick Toliver, left, speaking with his mentor Col. Charles McGee
"I knew him 11 years before I found out that he was an original Tuskegee Airman," Toliver said in wonder.
"I was amazed because he never said anything about it."
In fact, Toliver -- himself a famed "Top Gun" fighter -- noted that none of the original war pilots told tales of their triumphs in the war.
"They never talked about what they did. It was almost as if they had a code not to speak much about what they did, but to demonstrate by example, and show the world who we are through everyday behavior," he said.
"They taught us how to be true patriots in America, regardless of what it was like. We all know what America was like then: still strictly segregated, racism was still rampant. But they had learned how to fight, for their country."
Chinese Canadians: fighting for the vote
When the Tuskegee Airmen arrived in their red uniforms to the UBC conference room, they were met by their Chinese Canadian counterparts in dark navy blue.