Col. Charles McGee summed up in four words Saturday what he wants young people to know: Perceive, prepare, perform and persevere.
The 97-year-old, a surviving Tuskegee Airman, talked to a group of about 80 at the AOPA National Aviation Community Center for a Black History Month event.
Tuskegee Airmen were an all-black air squadron formally known as the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Air Forces.
The Bethesda resident spoke on what it was like to be one of the military's first black aviators. He fought in World War II, Vietnam and Korea, completing 409 fighter combat missions. He holds the record for the highest three-war total of fighter combat missions in U.S. Air Force history.
During a time when racism and bias were prevalent, the airmen were able to dispel what the military saw as "facts," he said.
Policy was blacks were not capable of doing anything technical and a report from the Army War College said they were less advanced subspecies of the human race, he said.
He said military officials realized they needed everyone to participate in the fight against Germany so African-Americans were allowed to begin mechanics training.
"The Army thought [Tuskegee airmen] were going to fail. They didn't."
In 1941, he said the military built a separate airfield and started to allow them to do pilot training.
McGee enlisted in 1942 starting at the Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama and graduated from flight school the following year.
Throughout his career, he flew aircraft such as Bell P-39 Airacobra, Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and North American P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft.
He said the Tuskegee Airmen were called the "Double V Program," victory against Germany overseas and victory against racism back home.
"I don't like segregation, but those years from '41 to '49 we developed lifelong friends."
McGee said the squadron could be seen as a first step before the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.
"Persevering through our circumstances was a big part of the story," he said. "They didn't like us, didn't want us ... We could have turned away from supporting our country, but we didn't."
Mary Soliva, an active duty medic stationed at Fort Detrick, asked McGee who his mentors were.
His family and the Boy Scouts were who influenced him, he said.
"I was glad as a youngster I had parents and grandparents that said 'treat others how you want to be treated,'" he said.
Soliva said she was honored to hear from someone who faced such adversity. It was especially impactful because, as a woman in the military, all branches opened to women last year.
"Him and all the Tuskegee Airmen paved the way for the rest of us," she said.
Mike Woods, manager of the AOPA National Aviation Community Center, said he was most impressed by how active McGee still is.
"He played it down, they were an impressive group," he said. "They had a lot to prove."
McGee is an ambassador with Tuskegee Airmen Inc., a foundation that works to preserve the history of the Tuskegee experience. He said another goal of the organization is to motivate young people to become interested in aviation.
McGee has received numerous accolades for his accomplishments including the Legion of Merit with Cluster, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Bronze Star and the Air Medal (25 times).
He was born in Ohio on Dec. 7, 1919. He married Frances Nelson in 1942, and they had three children. He now has 10 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.
"I've been blessed," he said.
(c) 2016 The Frederick News-Post. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.