Ten years after Charles McGee returned home from World War II as an accomplished fighter pilot and Army Captain, he couldn’t get a job as a commercial airline pilot.
“All I can say now is they weren’t hiring blacks or women,” McGee, 96, tells PEOPLE.
Although the Kansas City, Missouri, native was one of the most decorated pilots within the Tuskegee Airmen, the nation’s first all-black aviation unit whose exemplary flying record helped influence Harry Truman’s decision to desegregate the U.S. Armed Forces in 1948, the incredible hallmark did little to change how McGee was treated upon returning home.
“Segregation still existed across the country,” he recalls.
When McGee was unable to find work flying as a civilian, he made the decision to remain in the military – ultimately flying a record 409 combat missions in WWII, Korea and Vietnam.
But now, he’s less concerned with his personal legacy.
“It’s not personal recognition that I seek,” he says. “I want to pass on to the young people of today that you can’t let your circumstances be an excuse for not achieving.”
On April 21, McGee and fellow Tuskegee Airman George Hardy will attend the unveiling of a refurbished P-51D Mustang, the plane flown by many in their unit, at the National World War II Museum. The two men will be joined by Good Morning America‘s Robin Roberts in a discussion of the lasting legacy of America’s first black fighter pilots.
“What we accomplished flying the P51 was an important step in bringing about a change in the bias and generalizations that had been part of military policy,” George Hardy, 90, says.
Hardy enlisted in the army at age 17 in 1943, and graduated from training as a pilot and lieutenant in 1944.
“We were segregated wherever we went,” he recalls. “Even on the ship we took overseas.”
Despite this challenge, the airmen did their best to put aside their frustrations in order to prove themselves.
“It wasn’t pleasant, but we didn’t look at the negative,” McGee says. “We looked at the positive and that was we were given the chance to prove that that thinking was wrong.”
“It was a way of life as far as we were concerned,” adds Hardy. “It was not our job to fight segregation, it was our job to fly.”
And fly they did. The Tuskegee Airmen were so respected as pilots that all-white bomber squadrons requested them as escorts as they flew over Nazi Germany.
“There had been a policy that said that black people could hold service positions but nothing technical,” McGee says. “We proved that to be erroneous.”
Despite the group’s achievements, their legacy remained underrepresented until the airmen formed as a national group in 1970.
“At that time a lot of people in this country, even in the black community, didn’t know that black people had flown in World War II,” Hardy says.
Now, Hardy, McGee and the other living airmen travel the country and share their experiences – while inspiring the next generation.
“I talk to a lot of groups around the country, especially kids, and let them know that even though you have obstacles you can work to overcome them,” Hardy says.