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Tuskegee Airman Colonel McGee

By Peter Stein

I finished reviewing the Washington Post’s front page and the sports section when a headline in the obituaries on January 17, 2022, caught my interest.

“Barrier-breaking Tuskegee Airman flew combat missions in three wars.” The story was about retired Air Force Colonel Charles McGee, who lived until the age of 102. After retirement, he was promoted to Brigadier General.

The armed forces of the United States—the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines—were segregated before and during World War II. The Tuskegee Airmen served in an all-Black unit where they had to overcome the opposition to allowing Black pilots to fly combat missions. A number of white officers questioned whether African Americans had the skill, intelligence, and courage to become military pilots, the article said.

Colonel McGee in a 1989 interview with the newspaper identified the racism. “Once we proved that we could fly, they said we didn’t have the guts to fight in combat. But our record speaks for itself.” After the war, the fighter group was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for the longest bomber escort to Berlin in 1945.

My interest peaked when I read that the Tuskegee pilots destroyed three German Messerschmitt 262 jet fighters and damaged five additional planes. Colonel McGee himself downed one of those German planes while escorting B-17s over Czechoslovakia, according to his obituary. 

I suddenly realized that while McGee was piloting his plane over my country, I was a young boy living in Nazi-occupied Prague. Between 1944 and 1945, we regularly heard air raid sirens announcing the arrival of American, Canadian, and British planes.

Most of these planes unloaded their bombs on targets in Germany but a few times, they bombed military and industrial targets in and around Prague. I was in a school downtown on a day in February 1945 when the wails of the alarm scared all of us. Although we periodically rehearsed the alarm drills, that day seemed different—our teachers looked worried. “Leave your books in your desk; take your coats and hats. Quickly, quickly.”

Explosions had already started and they were getting louder, one crash followed another. Prague was being bombed. The youngest students started to cry while I, a third grader, clenched my fists, bit my lips, trying not to cry. I was scared. Suddenly there was an eerie silence, followed by sounds of fire engines and ambulance sirens.

In the basement I sat with friends Tomas and Jiri wondering how close the bombs had landed. Did they hit military targets, civilian targets, our homes? We wondered why the Americans bombed downtown Prague, where there were no obvious military targets.

We did agree that the bombing showed that the end of the war was closer than the Nazi authorities were telling us. And for me it meant the hope that my father would return from a Nazi concentration camp.

Years later, I learned that Prague was bombed accidentally. It happened the same day that Dresden in Germany was devastated. Three waves of 1,300 Allied bombers attacked Dresden, mostly British Lancaster bombers and American B-17 Flying Fortresses.

Tragically, due to a “navigation error,” a squadron of American planes assumed they were over Dresden, perhaps because the topography of Dresden is similar to that of Prague.

That day 40 American B-17 bombers dropped 152 tons of bombs on central Prague, killing more than 700 civilians and destroying over 300 houses and historical sites.

Was Colonel McGee flying over Prague that day or on his way to Dresden? Or was he at the Tuskegee Italian airbase resting? 

I don’t know, but still I thank him for his bravery in liberating my homeland.

© 2022, Peter Stein. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.