Ceremony honors veterans of the WWII Battle for the Skies
June 20, 2018
WASHINGTON — During a ceremony honoring veterans and the fallen of the Battle for the Skies at the National World War II Memorial on Wednesday, Master of Ceremonies Jonathan Elias said that the Tuskegee Airmen never lost a plane that they were escorting.
Retired Air Force Col. Charles McGee wanted to clarify that.
After the ceremony, McGee — a pilot with the famed Tuskegee Airmen — said, “I put it this way – if you ever use the word ‘never,’ you need to qualify it. Never lost a plane in 172 missions – that’s a good statement. We flew 179, but looking back at the record, we still had the best win-loss ratio of the groups escorting for 15th Air Force. So always qualify ‘never.’ We had a good record.”
McGee flew 136 missions for the 302nd Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group, more popularly known as the Tuskegee Airmen (after the Tuskegee Army Air Field, where they trained). The unit is known for breaking color barriers in WWII as the first black pilots in the U.S. armed forces, something of which McGee is extremely proud.
“We accomplished the unexpected," he said. "There were those who thought that because of the happenstance of birth that we couldn’t do anything technical, but that wasn’t true. Once given the opportunity, we dispelled those biases, generalizations and, in some cases, racist ideas that had become a part of mobilization policy. Our performance helped bring about a change that was good for the country.”
An executive order by President Harry Truman ended the segregation of the military in 1948. McGee believes that the Tuskegee Airmen and their demonstrated flying skills helped bring about desegregation, despite the racism that he and the other pilots faced.
“The racism was there, but we didn’t let that be an impediment to our accomplishments and performance, and that’s what brought about the change — to realize that with good training, good leadership, which was also black, we accomplished something that was helpful and meaningful,” McGee said.
He later went on to fly 100 missions in the Korean War and 173 missions in Vietnam. He retired as colonel after 30 years in the Air Force, with 6,308 flying hours logged over the course of his career.
McGee traveled from his home in Maryland to attend the ceremony at the memorial on Wednesday, and he was joined by three other Air Force veterans and representatives from the air forces of other Allied nations, as well as Washington Nationals relief pitcher Sean Doolittle.
Doolittle was invited to the anniversary ceremony because he is a distant relative of General James Doolittle, who commanded the aircraft during the bombing of Tokyo in 1942, which became known as the “Doolittle Raid.” The raid took place just four months after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and Doolittle’s successful attack on the Japanese mainland proved a major morale boost for American forces.
Sean Doolittle wanted to stay out of the spotlight at the ceremony, despite his notoriety as a pro athlete. He spoke with all four of the veterans in attendance.
“I’m trying to take a back seat and just listen to some of their stories and talk to them. This is living history and just to share the stage in a figurative sense, is an incredible honor,” Doolittle said.
The pitcher was able to talk to veterans of D-Day during a ceremony at Nationals Park on June 6, but Wednesday's ceremony commemorating the Battle for the Skies held a special meaning for him. His Air Force connections run deep – his father is an Air Force veteran, his stepmother was in the Air National Guard, and his brother-in-law is active-duty Air Force.
Speaking of the sacrifices of the WWII veterans he said, “It is so difficult for us to really put it in context. It seems like such an abstract thing for our generation, but this is pretty incredible … I’m just trying to learn as much as I can and hear their stories.”
Sharing stories with Doolittle were Jack Goldstein and Lewis Perrone, both staff sergeants in the Eighth Air Force. Goldstein, who is 94, was a waist gunner on a B-17, and Perrone, who is 95, was a ball turret gunner for the same planes.
Perrone says that being in the Army Air Forces was “tough,” but they both agree that it is important for them to share their stories with younger generations.
The military in the 1940s was “altogether different than it is today,” said Goldstein. “Today the kids don’t know too much about it. In fact, one kid asked me, ‘What was World War eleven?’”
Charles Drew, who is 93, spends his time teaching young students about WWII. His daughter is a middle school history teacher, and he likes to visit her classroom to talk about what life was like when he was growing up.
“I advise them all – pay attention to the teachers, get an education. That’s very important in life. Grade school, high school. I enjoy doing that, meeting these children,” he said.
Drew was a tech sergeant with the Eighth Air Force during World War II. He was trained as a combat photographer and radio operator, flying information missions to photograph bombed-out bridges and roads in enemy territory. He retired as a master sergeant.
Decades after the air war ended, Drew said, there is one more mission that he hopes will be accomplished. The Eighth Air Force is searching for a lost trophy from the war – a flag presented to the 305th Bomb Group by the Army after the capture of Schweinfurt, Germany. The 305th bombed Schweinfurt before it was captured, and suffered heavy losses.
“We’re looking for a flag that was presented to the 305th Bomb Group by the Army … We lost so many airmen on that Schweinfurt raid because there was a mistake. Two bomb groups were to take off, and they were to split. One was to go to Regensburg, the other to Schweinfurt. And the fighter escort never got off the ground, so they got shot down. Our squadron sent out 15 [bombers] and got back two. That’s a heavy loss. So at the end of the war, the Army captured Schweinfurt and took the Nazi flag down. (Gen. "Tooey") Spaatz, who was commanding the Eighth, wrote an inscription on it, and he presented it to our bomb group,” said Drew.
Drew hopes that the flag will be found in his lifetime so that it can be displayed in the Eighth Air Force Museum. For now though, like the other veterans in attendance, he is happy to share his stories and preserve the legacy of the WWII airmen.