PFC Carey Lee McCrae, Sr. (1925-2012)

PFC Carey Lee McCrae, Sr. was born in Philadelphia on February 15, 1925. He had the proud distinction of being part of the Tuskegee Airmen and became one of the first African Americans to receive technical military training in aviation. He was a master mechanic and was ultimately assigned to the Military Occupational Specialty Airplane* Engine Mech. 747 Group.

The Tuskegee Airmen often performed with inferior equipment and would get older model planes such as the P39’s and P37’s that were called death traps or junkers. One pilot said that had it not been for the ingenuity of the mechanics, he could not have succeeded in the missions he was assigned.

On December 25, 1943, McCrae was assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group that went to Italy. The African Americans still faced racial prejudice, but the Italians treated them a little better.

The 332nd was later assigned the P51 Mustang, the best fighter plane developed by the United States in WWII. The mechanics named these planes “Red Tails.”  The 332nd Fighter Group earned the unique distinction of never having lost an escorted bomber to an enemy fighter.

When McCrae completed his tour of duty, his squad was split up and dispersed to other units. Originally, the Tuskegee Experiment was to remain a secret, but the records were finally declassified on September 27, 1958, thirteen years after the war ended.

Upon his return to the states, McCrae had to endure the racism he thought he fought a war to eliminate. Even after he had received a good conduct medal, the European African Middle East Theatre Medal, three (3) Bronze Stars and a Victory Medal, McCrae was still unsuccessful in getting a job as an airplane mechanic at any of the airlines. McCrae graduated from an electrical school in 1948 and was hired as an RCA electrical technician where he worked for many years. He married his childhood sweetheart, Mildred D. Harris and together they become parents to four (4) children. McCrae’s children are the late Carey Lee “Butch” McCrae, Jr. (passed away in 1984), Jacqui McCrae Simmons, Linda McCrae, and Anthony McCrae.

Carey Lee McCrae, Sr. was fondly known as “Kate” to his family and friends. He initially was known as “Cake” because he loved cake. However, over time the name morphed into “Kate” due to the way it was being pronounced through the years. During the war, he was known as “Dimples.”  That’s the name his former sergeant, Edmund Wilkinson, called him after finally finding McCrae after a 40-year search. McCrae and Wilkinson used every opportunity to talk about the Ground Crew and other support units responsible for keeping the Black pilots in the air.

McCrae became an advent bowler and was affectionately known as “Mac.”  He bowled in a variety of leagues and tournaments for over thirty (30) years. He loved to solve all types of puzzles and became an expert in solving crossword and cryptogram puzzles from the Inquirer and Daily News newspapers. After his wife’s death, he became part of AmeriCorps at Barry Elementary School and was later hired as a part-time supportive service assistant. It was during his employment with AmeriCorps that his family, friends, school staff, students, and Corps members, would find out what McCrae had remained quiet about. He never shared his involvement as a member of the Tuskegee Airmen.

In February 2000, the City Council of Philadelphia acknowledged McCrae’s distinguished service record as one of the airplane mechanics responsible for keeping the “Red Tails” in the air, safe and fast with a citation presented by Jannie L. Blackwell, Councilwoman, 3rd District. The citation was presented to Carey Lee McCrae, Sr., affectionately known as “Mr. Mac,” at his surprise 75th birthday celebration at the Paul Robeson House during his Black history month presentation on the Tuskegee Airmen.

Carey Lee McCrae, Sr. was later diagnosed with emphysema which slowed down his activities. But McCrae garnered the strength to enjoy the slots at the casinos. He was exceptionally good at having the slot machines produce winnings. He was skilled at performing miracles on those airplanes, so the slots were no challenge for him. He visited every new casino as soon as they opened.

Carey Lee McCrae, Sr. died on May 17, 2012, at age 87. He was a part of the ground crew beneath the wings of the Black Pilots.