“I first heard of Col. Charles E. McGee when I was a lieutenant colonel, with probably 20 years of military service. I was attending a Tuskegee Airmen convention when I was told that a black man had 100 or more sorties in three different wars WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, a combined 409 in all. I literally said, ‘Impossible!’
I thought to myself; I graduated with military distinction from the Air Force Academy. I know all of the ‘knowledge’ and military facts that the Academy drilled into us. There was no way that the only fighter pilot to have ever flown 100 or more combat sorties in three different wars (WWII, Korea, and Vietnam), totaling 409, was black.
Plus, I had read numerous senior officer biographical profiles and all the profiles of the previous Tactical Air Command and Air Combat Command Commanders, and several of them had combat sorties totaling into the 200s. I felt that there was no way that it could be true and that I not know it. I took the ‘doubting Thomas’ stance and said, ‘Until I meet him myself, I won’t believe it.’
I got the amazing opportunity to meet Col. Charles McGee—a dashing, alert, and articulate man in his late 80s. He shared some of his accomplishments with me and autographed my copy of his book. He told me that he was unaware of the significance of his sortie totals until the Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Fogleman made special mention of it at a commander’s call.”
The Air Force’s Black Ceiling
I have made a case for Charles E. McGee to be promoted to Brigadier General in two different books, “The Air Force’s Black Ceiling” and “The Air Force’s Black Pilot Training Experience.” In the quote above, I share how I met him. The quote below from “Black Pilot” is how I closed my second book’s effort to get Charles McGee promoted to Brigadier General.
“I close this chapter with a request for prayer based on the Scriptures below. The McGee family and a team of retired officers (senior and junior), high-level civilians, and Congressional staffers have done everything we can in the natural to ‘give honor where honor is due.’ Join us in a prayer of agreement that the favor we need is granted and that everything will fall into place so that these great men can be raised up in promotion and honor in a manner that befits their great accomplishments.
Psalm 75:6-7 (KJV) For promotion cometh neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south. But God is the judge: he putteth down one, and setteth up another.
Romans 13:7 (NKJV) Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.
Proverbs 3:3-4 (KJV) Let not mercy and truth forsake thee: bind them about thy neck; write them upon the table of thine heart: So shalt thou find favour and good understanding in the sight of God and man.”
The Air Forces Black Pilot Training Experience
*The prayer refers to these “great men,” plural. Col McGee’s honorary promotion package was combined with an honorary promotion package for Lt. Col. Richard Cole, the last surviving member of the Doolittle Raiders. Lt. Col. Richard ‘Dick” Cole was Co-Pilot for Colonel Doolittle as he led 80 Airmen on the famed “Doolittle Raid” on Japan in 1942 (Associated Press, 2017). Though Lt. Col. Cole’s honorary promotion was approved, he passed away at the age of 103 before he could receive it. It was awarded posthumously.
Anyone familiar with Charles E. McGee knows that the effort to secure an honorary promotion for him to the rank of Brigadier General was successful. President Trump announced his promotion at his State of the Union address in January 2020.
My intent in this chapter is to share the backstory, the “behind-the-scenes” view of this incredible story. It is a story of faith, teamwork, and honor. It is a story of perseverance over seven years from start to finish. It’s an inspiring story culminating in a 100-year-old Tuskegee Airman getting stars pinned on his shoulders in the office of the President of the United States.
In the first quote, I mention that I was blown away when I first met then Colonel Charles E. McGee. He probably would have been in his very late eighties at the time. I shared that I got an autographed copy of his book, but I didn’t read it. Years later, somewhere around 2013 or 2014, I was doing volunteer work for a youth aviation camp in Phoenix, and Colonel McGee came and addressed the students. At that time, he would have been about 93. He looked amazing. He was articulate, polished, regal. I was so impressed with him but was at the same time immediately embarrassed that I had not read his book, the book he autographed for me. I was working at a Tuskegee Airmen-sponsored youth camp and hadn’t read the book of one of the greatest living/remaining Tuskegee Airmen.
He stayed around the camp for a few days. I later learned that he had family in the area. But in that short time, I devoured his book. I knew about his sortie record before I read the book, but I did not know about his command record. I didn’t know that he had been a squadron commander multiple times, a Maintenance Group Commander, Base Commander, and Wing Commander. As a person who has studied senior officer bios for decades, my first thought was that he should be a general.
That thought then became a demand, even a burden in my heart/soul. I began asking leaders in the Tuskegee Airmen organization why he wasn’t a general and what we could do to get him promoted. My initial queries were met with “it’s impossible” or, even worse, “that he was no more deserving” than any other Tuskegee Airman. I even found and asked a person that worked on President Obama’s staff, and all I got back was discouragement.
In my frustration over lack of assistance with making this happen, I heard the voice of the Holy Spirit say, “you do it.” I was blown away. I knew that I couldn’t do it if all these other influential people I knew couldn’t pull it off. The Holy Spirit then put on my heart the story of Nehemiah (chapter 2, NKJV):
“And it came to pass in the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, that I took the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had never been sad in his presence before.
2 Therefore the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This is nothing but sorrow of heart.” So I became dreadfully afraid,
3 and said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ tombs, lies waste, and its gates are burned with fire?”
4 Then the king said to me, “What do you request?” So I prayed to the God of heaven.
5 And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ tombs, that I may rebuild it.”
6 Then the king said to me (the queen also sitting beside him), “How long will your journey be? And when will you return?” So it pleased the king to send me; and I set him a time.
7 Furthermore I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, let letters be given to me for the governors of the region beyond the River, that they must permit me to pass through till I come to Judah,
8 and a letter to Asaph the keeper of the king’s forest, that he must give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel which pertains to the temple, for the city wall, and for the house that I will occupy.” And the king granted them to me according to the good hand of my God upon me.”
Like Nehemiah in the Scripture above, my heart was saddened, burdened because I felt like something should be done to honor this great, humble man, but I knew I didn’t have the resources to do so. That’s when the significance of this Scripture kicked in. God was the “king” that had all the resources at His disposal to get this tremendous task done. In the Scripture above, Nehemiah had to request the resources and trust that the king would grant them. God had asked me “to do it,” but I could only accomplish it by asking in faith for the resources needed and then trust in His ability and His faithfulness to provide them.
I had read in Colonel McGee’s book that he was the son of a minister. I felt like God was reaching down generationally to honor Colonel McGee, perhaps because of things his father had done to be a blessing to others. It further served to inspire me as I stared down this never-before-done task.
The first major resource that God provided came in the form of my first book, “Black Ceiling.” I had decided to make a case for him in the book hoping to use the book to help get him promoted. I prayed that if nothing else came of the book that if it helped Colonel McGee get promoted that it would be worth it. As I was in the final stages of writing the book, my editor, LaToya Thompson (no relation), suggested that I put all of the things that I had written about Col McGee into a single chapter. Originally, I had things about his record, etc., scattered across several chapters. I knew her suggestion was not only a good idea but a God-idea, a divine inspiration. That one suggestion would later prove to be powerfully impactful as the “Colonel McGee” chapters from this book and the sequel were sent out as stand-alone documentation to gain Congressional and other support.
That chapter also brought me into closer connection with Colonel McGee’s family. Colonel McGee’s son, Ron, a former major and fighter pilot, was also a member of my local Tuskegee Airman chapter at the time. Colonel McGee’s daughter, Dr. Charlene Smith, had written the book on Colonel McGee that I had read. I had asked Ron early on if I could pursue this task. When the chapter on Colonel McGee was finished, I turned to Ron to make sure that I had represented his father well. I wanted to make sure that between him and Charlene that all my facts were correct. Once Ron had sent me the corrections to things that I had written, I was ready for the next step, approval by Colonel McGee.
Ron had already told me that Colonel McGee did not want to appear like he was trying to make his own case for becoming a general. Ron had told me that his dad had made peace with the discriminatory rating he received as a senior colonel that ended his chance for a star while on active duty.
I remember wondering how can I honor Colonel McGee and press for his promotion if he doesn’t want me to? I remember praying that God would give me “favor and good understanding” (Prov 3:4) with Colonel McGee. When I spoke to him on the phone, I was so nervous. He shared his reluctance to seem like he was pushing for his own promotion. He was content with the success that he had achieved in his career. I assured him that I would not make it seem like this was his initiative and requested that I be allowed to press forward with my efforts. He agreed, but I had the sense that if it ever started to look like he was trying to exalt himself that he would shut it down. In fact, that nearly happened later in our effort when some people misread something I posted online to mean that he had already been promoted, and Colonel McGee got deluged with calls.
I was awed by Colonel McGee’s humility. Not only had he made peace with the unfairness of the discrimination against him and its cost to him personally, but he had also forgiven all those involved. This made me even more motivated to work on his promotion. Colonel McGee’s book has his face on it. I put his book in a place in my office where I could see it and be reminded to pray for him and his promotion and for all the resources that I needed. My book was published in July 2016.
In the fall of 2016, I attended my 30th college reunion. I graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1986. I had brought a whole box of books to sell/share with my Academy classmates. I knew that many of them were in line to become the Air Force’s senior leaders in 2020. I wrote the book with them as my target audience.
While I was at the reunion promoting my book, I got on the topic of Col McGee’s promotion. I was told that my classmate, Mike Logrande was the Chair of the Board of Military Corrections! I looked at this as God sending me a major resource. Colonel McGee’s children and I had been discussing whether to pursue a retroactive promotion or an honorary promotion. A retroactive promotion with full pay and benefits would only be possible by challenging the discriminatory rating in Colonel McGee’s record. I now had direct access to the expert on the process!
Mike Logrande told me that one of my classmates Todd Harmer, from my Basic Cadet Squadron, was a lobbyist. While there, I also found out that Scott McClean, also from my Basic Cadet Squadron, was also a lobbyist. It was at this point that God gave me the idea to ask them to be part of a “team” that included Colonel McGee’s family to make Colonel McGee’s promotion a reality. All three of these high-powered, super busy gentlemen agreed to be part of my team. It was the favor of God! I was so excited! God had given me men who knew the ins and outs of the Board of Military Corrections and the workings of Congress. Congressional approval would be required to get Col McGee’s promotion approved.
The reunion was in the fall of 2016. Donald Trump won the presidential election in November of 2016. So much of my confidence had been in getting the promotion done while President Obama was in office. My assumption was that it would be easy to get President Obama to approve the promotion because he was black and because he was aware of Colonel McGee’s accomplishments. President-elect Trump’s racial rhetoric had been so strong that I honestly let it discourage my faith that we could get this done while he was in office. It certainly caused me to pray more earnestly. For me getting it approved under President Trump would be an even greater demonstration of God’s ability. I couldn’t do it in the first place. But I thanked God that he had assembled a team that would lead the process.
Mike Logrande helped me and Colonel McGee’s family to understand the difficulty of trying to get Colonel McGee’s one discriminatory rating overturned after all these years. He helped guide us to the decision to pursue an honorary promotion. It was during this process that I discovered that General Benjamin O. Davis’ promotion to four stars by President Clinton had been honorary and not retroactive. The family reserved the option to pursue a retroactive promotion after we secured the honorary promotion if they wanted.
Todd Harmer and Scott McClean helped me and the family develop the grand and ultimately successful strategy of attaching Colonel McGee’s honorary promotion to a piece of legislation, specifically the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) the “NDAA is the name for each of a series of United States federal laws specifying the annual budget and expenditures of the U.S. Department of Defense.” (Black Pilot)
Somewhere around the time that we formed our strategy, I saw a video with former Secretary of the Air Force (SECAF) Deborah Lee James and Colonel McGee. In the video, she referred to Colonel McGee as “her friend.” She was the SECAF under President Obama. I reached out to her on LinkedIn, asked for her help, and sent her a copy of the chapter in the book. She did not respond to me, but she reached out to the Air Force’s Legislative Liaison office to jump-start the process at the highest level. God had added another resource.
Unfortunately, as I shared in “Black Pilot,” even with the former SECAF’s direct intervention, our team was unable to get the Air Force to approve the honorary promotion in time for the fiscal year (FY) 2018 NDAA. The staff package got caught up in delays and the Air Force and DoD’s bureaucracy.
At one point, the package got so stalled that I reached out to a former mentor, a retired African American, four-star, General Larry O. Spencer. General Spencer had served as the Air Force Vice-Chief of Staff under President Obama. General Spencer made one phone call in April 2018 and found out that the package had been languishing on someone’s desk in the Pentagon for six months! God had added another high-level resource to our team at a crucial moment as we were racing to try to get the honorary promotion into the FY 2019 NDAA.
In July 2018, I published “Black Pilot” which included a chapter that was written as a bullet background paper to generate support for Colonel McGee’s promotion. It included everything that had been done up until that time and was written with the intention of turning up the heat on the Air Force to recognize Colonel McGee, who was now 98. My earnest prayer was that he would be promoted while he was alive and could be an even greater ambassador to the Air Force as a Brigadier General Tuskegee Airman. Unfortunately, even though General Spencer had got our package moving and I had published the second book, the package was not approved by the Air Force in the spring-summer of 2018, in time to be included in the legislation for the FY 2019 NDAA.
Missing the opportunity to get Colonel McGee’s honorary promotion included into legislation for two legislative cycles in a row was a major challenge to my faith. I had to continue to believe that God would make a way and that Colonel McGee would still be alive when it was approved. I also had to trust that the members of my team would keep volunteering their critical time and expertise to the effort for a third attempt to get the honorary promotion attached to the next NDAA.
General Spencer told me in November of 2016, “My recommendation is if you really want to do this, you either need to get the Air Force and/or someone in Congress to take up the cause. Otherwise, I’m afraid nothing will happen.”
I had written the chapter in “Black Ceiling” to turn up the heat/generate additional visibility at senior levels within the Air Force, but I also began to use it to get greater visibility within Congress. I took to LinkedIn and asked for help. I created a template where anyone could write their Senator or Congressman and attach the chapter as justification. Many people pledged to write letters. God was adding to the team. I found out through Todd Harmer that Senators were getting the letters. God was building support at the highest levels on top of what Colonel McGee’s family had done through direct contact with Senator Dick Durbin and Senator Chris Van Hollen’s offices.
I even got responses from two Senators' offices, including Senator John McCain. I thought John McCain surely could help make this happen. When he fell ill and ultimately died, God reminded me again that my faith should rest in His ability to get this done, not in any single man.
The letters helped build Congressional support for Colonel McGee’s package and ultimately proved true General Spencer’s original advice. Todd Harmer, Scott McClean, and the McGee family had secured the very much needed support of Senators Van Hollen and Durbin and Congressman Anthony Brown of Maryland. This resulted in getting the package elevated to and approved by the Secretary of the Air Force in time to be included in the FY 2020 NDAA.
Todd and Scott were leading the charge through this critical Congressional phase, a phase so technical that I often didn’t understand it. Here’s a sample update from Scott to our team in October of 2019:
“OK, here is the current status, and apologies for any confusion: Since the promotion was part of the House NDAA (via amendment) but not the Senate NDAA, Senator Van Hollen’s office elected to introduce the stand-alone bill so the Senate was on record as being supportive (it was unlikely to get to or through the House, but that wasn’t the objective)…this will then streamline and increase the likelihood that the Senate will “recede” (defer to and agree with) the House in conference, so that the reconciled bill to be sent to the president will have the promotion included. This is all good and maximizes the chance of success.
During the staffing process, an honorary promotion to full Colonel for Lieutenant Colonel Richard “Dick” Cole had been added along with Colonel McGee’s promotion recommendation. He passed away at the age of 103 before it could all be approved. This was again a faith test. Could we get this promotion approved while Colonel Mc Gee was still alive? He was approaching 100. We had no idea if President Trump would approve this add onto the legislation or not. We had to believe that God would grant us favor even with the most powerful man on earth.
Colonel McGee turned 100 on December 7th, 2019. He had an amazing 100th birthday celebration in Maryland. We had word that the package was en route to the president and could be signed in time to provide one heck of a 100th birthday present. Here’s Scott’s update from December 9th, 2019:
“Certainly wish we had this yesterday for his birthday celebration, but we got it in the NDAA conference report! Yes, it has to be voted on by the House and Senate, then signed by POTUS, but we’re on the proverbial one-yard line, and to mix metaphors, it would be hard to imagine this getting derailed. Huge credit to Charlene, Ivan, and Charlie!
SEC. 599A. AUTHORITY TO ISSUE AN HONORARY PROMOTION TO COLONEL CHARLES E. MCGEE, UNITED STATES AIR FORCE (RET.), TO THE GRADE OF BRIGADIER GENERAL.
(a) IN GENERAL.—Pursuant to section 1563 of title10, United States Code, the President may issue to Colonel Charles E. McGee, United States Air Force (retired), a distinguished Tuskegee Airman, an honorary promotion to the grade of brigadier general.
(b) ADDITIONAL BENEFITS NOT TO ACCRUE.—The advancement of Charles E. McGee on the retired list of the Air Force under subsection (a) shall not affect the retired pay or other benefits from the United States to which Charles E. McGee is entitled based upon his military service, or affect any benefits to which any other person is or may become entitled based on such military service.
Here’s an excerpt from the December 16th issue of Air Force Magazine:
“Defense Bill Would Promote Cole, McGee
Dec. 16, 2019 | By Brian W. Everstine
Two US Air Force legends will be promoted, one posthumously, under the draft fiscal 2020 defense policy bill.
The bill includes language honorarily promoting retired Lt. Col. Dick Cole, the last living Doolittle Raider who died earlier this year, to colonel. It also honorarily promotes retired Col. Charles McGee, a famed Tuskegee Airman who flew 409 combat missions through three wars, to brigadier general.
On April 18, 1942, Cole co-piloted the lead B-25 Mitchell on a raid into Japan to take revenge for the Pearl Harbor attacks. While the raid did not inflict heavy damage, it was a large boost to morale stateside following the surprise attacks in Hawaii.
Cole and his crew bailed out of their aircraft in China after it ran out of fuel. The airmen evaded Japanese soldiers, aided by locals and missionaries, and eventually returned to the US. Later in his career, Cole flew “over the hump” of the Himalayan mountains and was part of the founding cadre of Air Commandos.
Cole died April 9 at the age of 103.
McGee, who recently turned 100, served in the famous “Red Tails” of Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. Through his service in that war, along with Korea and Vietnam, he flew 409 combat missions—a record. He has received many awards including the Legion of Merit with oak leaf cluster and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The House approved the draft policy bill on Dec. 11, two days after it was introduced, and the Senate is expected to vote on the legislation this week.”
Here’s the note I sent out on December 20th:
“Just got a call from Ron McGee the bill is signed!! No word yet on a pin-on ceremony. Col McGee doesn't even know it's signed yet, he's already gone to bed!
Special thanks to my classmates Scott McClean, Todd Harmer, and Mike LoGrande for being part of this effort for over 2 years as advisors, working both houses of Congress, etc. This is a great day!!
We thought this was the final hurdle until we got this note from Todd Harmer on December 22nd:
Outstanding news and great work by the entire team; proud to have played a very small role in this. If not mistaken, however, the next step is to get a promotion order signed by SECAF making it official. I’m sure Mike L. has more experience in this area than Happy Holidays and best to all for 2020!
Of course, with the president’s signature, this last hurdle was just a small formality. Over seven years of praying and standing in faith had finally culminated in success. I was in complete awe. I had watched God successfully assemble a miracle team. A team comprised Brigadier General McGee’s children, lobbyists, the former Chair of the Board of Military Records, various people who wrote letters from all over the country, a former Secretary of the Air Force, a former Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Air Staff personnel, Congressmen, Senators and even the President of the United States. God provided every resource needed to complete this monumental task.
God even granted Colonel McGee the health and longevity to get a star pinned on his shoulders in the Oval Office. On top of that, in the same week, he received a standing ovation by the President, Vice President, all the Members of Congress, the military Service Chiefs/Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and four Supreme Court members during the State of the Union address. He then went on to perform the coin toss at the Super Bowl and has been serving as a fantastic 100-year-old Brigadier General, Tuskegee Airman ambassador for the Air Force all over the U.S. ever since. He was doing everything I had dreamt he would be doing. And my goodness, he looks incredibly impressive in a blue uniform with a Brigadier General star on! He is now 101 years old and has been proudly wearing his star for over a year! All glory to God!
Defense Bill Would Promote Cole, McGee - Air Force Magazine
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