Tuskegee Airmen saluted for service in event at UMES

Retired Col. Charles McGee, standing, and retired Sgt. Harry Quinton at Monday’s Veterans Day event at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

Hundreds of students, local elected officials, community members, and veterans gathered at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore to celebrate Veterans Day and the birthdays of two living legends — Dr. Charles McGee, retired Colonel, and Dr. Harry Quinton, a retired Sergeant.

At 99 years old, McGee is the oldest living Tuskegee Airman. He turns 100 years old in just few weeks. Quinton, a native of Salisbury, will turn 94 exactly one week later. 

McGee holds the distinction of flying 409 combat missions in three wars, an Air Force record that stands today. McGee, who still wears a tie every day, has a gentle, unassuming demeanor and radiates kindness.

Quinton was a mechanic for the Tuskegee force. He has eyes that sparkle and his side-eye is unmatched. He’s ornery and wields a keen wit.

Both men are sharp as tacks, refreshingly humble, and unwavering patriots.

Their stories are both inspiring and a testament to their character, determination, and resilience. That they served our nation and remained hopeful for better days, during a time when our shamefully segregated country offered them little reason to believe in such things, is remarkable. Their drive and sense of loyalty to a country that held them in such little regard, simply because of the color of their skin, is astounding. 

“I am a citizen of this country. We fought for the right to fight. If we had refused to go, that would’ve set our race back another hundred years,” Quinton said.

“The negro, the black people, have fought in every war this country has been involved with, starting with the Revolutionary War,” he said. 

“Everybody was involved in the opportunities that the war effort made available. It didn’t change segregation,” said McGee. “But everybody had an opportunity to go to work, things were improving, we could participate. Didn’t change the circumstances, but everybody was involved in where the country was going and that was an important factor.”

Presentations, commendations

The Veterans Day event held at UMES was organized and hosted by Cheryl Walker, founder and Executive Director of Young Elites of the Eastern Shore West to East Coast Aviation Network, or Y.E.E.S. W.E. C.A.N., a local nonprofit organization.

The day began with official presentations of commendations, proclamations, and declarations, recognizing Col. McGee for his service during a time when black men were believed by many to be inferior to their white counterparts, lacking the intellectual capacity for reason and the physical wear-with-all for combat. Nothing could have been farther from the truth.

Monday, McGee was given flags flown above the U.S. Capitol, declarations from U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, and U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, and proclamations from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, and the state Senate and House of Delegates.

Congressional aide Bill Reddish recognized that, “while you didn’t break the sound barrier flying a P-51 Mustang, you did break a lot of other barriers,” hinting at the enormous contributions these two men and their colleagues made to the country and, ultimately, to the Civil Rights Movement. 

Without Tuskegee Airmen, many of the outcomes and victories reported in the news and shared in history classes and books may have been very different. Regarding the elevated profile of Tuskegee Airmen in recent years, Quinton said, “It’s about time. It took 70 years before we were recognized” — as during World War II and the Jim Crow era, they were not given their due. Though grateful for the acknowledgments, both gentleman agreed that while they were fighting the Germans in Europe on behalf our our country, their fight against racism in America was equally important and continues to this day.

While the military, like the rest of the country, was segregated, the men who were part of the Tuskegee Airmen experience, were held to the same rigorous standards as their white counterparts.

McGee explained: “Training standards weren’t changed. We met the standards. The support people did, too. Sometimes, they tested them twice — just to be sure. The military maintained segregation. The first Tuskegee unit was an experiment. They expected us to fail. We didn’t.” The pioneering Tuskegee pilots were black, so were their mechanics. Quinton was a mechanic. He wanted to be a pilot but his vision was compromised. They said he didn’t have the depth perception to fly. But, he said, “Without us, the pilots would’ve never gotten off the ground. They needed us.”

Retired Sgt. Harry Quinton stands for a photo. “Used to be, only one person in the room had a camera. Now, everyone has one and they all want a picture,” laughed Quinton.

McGee, who said he chose flight school to avoid the draft and ground combat, added: “After my first flight in an open cockpit PT-17, I was hooked. I’m one of the lucky guys that actively flew 27 of my 30 years of service.”

Students intrigued

Students in attendance were afforded the opportunity to ask questions of the living legends. One asked, “How many bombers did you shoot down?”

McGee subtly pivoted, answering: “We were about saving American lives. We only attacked bombers if they tried to attack us. For every bomber we took down, we saved 10 American lives.”

“Without the Red Tails, they wouldn’t have made it back alive,” added Quinton.

Both men spoke extensively about the racism they battled overseas and at home. While stationed in Augusta, Ga., Quinton remembered that “black men were only allowed to visit the Post Exchange once a week, during specific hours.”

“I didn’t really understand that — until, one day, I went in and saw POWs — German Prisoners of War — lounging, drinking sodas, smoking cigarettes … and I said, ‘damn, they’re treating prisoners better than they’re treating me.’ So, I never went back to the PX.”

Unfortunately, after the war, segregation continued. Many, who McGee saluted, lost their lives. “We must certainly not forget those that gave full measure,” said McGee.

Once discharged, Quinton returned home. Veteran benefits had been promised, “52-20,” $20 per week for 52 weeks, were due to each veteran while they settled back in to civilian life and sought jobs.

But once home, Quinton didn’t receive his benefits. “No one wanted a black man standing on the corner with $20 in his pocket,” he said.

No matter who he talked with, Quinton met with difficulty and could not access the benefits he had earned.

Quinton left Salisbury and he never regretted it. “When I left, it was segregated. Jim Crow. When I came back it was the same thing,” he said.

He said there were no opportunities for him here. He and his wife moved to New Jersey, where he was immediately able to access his benefits, find a place to live, and get a job. Since his mother passed, he “has no reason to go back to Salisbury.” 

Several times, McGee and Quinton made a point to express their gratitude for the courage demonstrated by Eleanor Roosevelt and President Truman, who fought to integrate the military. Both men were proud to be part of that change. 

In 1972, the Tuskegee Airmen organized and began to work together to maintain their history of service and to ensure that our country doesn’t repeat its racist history. Today, the Tuskegee Airmen work together to ensure their stories are told, that history includes them and acknowledges their critical contributions.

Equally important, is their mission to inspire and motivate young people to pursue aviation and space-related careers. 

Concerns, hope for today

In more casual, one-on-one conversations with attendees, both men spoke of their concerns for our country, today.

While he talked of some people “who would like to see things go back to the way they used to be,” Quinton was encouraged by change over the last several decades.

“Salisbury is changing. The Eastern Shore is changing. Our country is changing,” he said. “We’re making progress, but we didn’t get there yet. We’re on the way but we didn’t get there yet.”

Y.E.E.S. W.E. C.A.N. instructor Jon Hurst asked him: “What gives you hope?”

Quinton answered: “Seeing reasonable sentences for nonviolent crimes. Seeing people treated fairly, justly.”

Hundreds of students from local schools attended the Veteran’s Day event, hosted at University of Maryland Eastern Shore, including students enrolled in the Young Elites of the Eastern Shore West to East Coast Aviation Network, or Y.E.E.S. W.E. C.A.N. program. Washington High School students Charles Smith III, a junior, and Awab Abdallah, a freshman, listen intently.

Astutely aware of current political and social issues, Quinton mentioned continued concerns with voter suppression, unfair sentencing and terms of incarceration that are far too long, particularly for black men, accused of non-violent crimes.

He said he would be satisfied “when all people are treated justly. All people.”

McGee lamented: “Unfortunately, now, in my mind, we are using military power for political purposes. There’s no win. It takes compromises. We’re proud to be veterans that served the country but we’re still hoping that the day of wars will end.”

Quinton nodded in agreement.

As he is nearing his 100th birthday, several people asked about McGee’s secret to longevity. Each time, he replied, simply, “Life has been a blessing.”

His youngest daughter, Yvonne McGee, says the key, in her estimation, is that “every day he gets up with a purpose. That purpose — his purpose — is to give back to young people.” 

Perhaps one of the most touching moments of the day occurred after lunch. Quinton presented McGee with notice that, this year, Virginia leaders declared the fourth Thursday in March as “Tuskegee Airmen Day” — forever.

Handing him a framed copy of the declaration, Quinton said, “This is for you. Today, it is my honor to present this to you, because you are my hero. You are my hero.”

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