Missouri native, four-star general reflects on his military career

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Gen. Seth McKee, 96, traveled to many countries and states during his time in the United States Air Force, but he still considers Missouri his home.

"I am always proud to tell everyone I am from Missouri," McKee said.

McKee was raised in Southeast Missouri and graduated from Central High School in 1934. He also attended Southeast Missouri State University from 1934 to 1937. He lives in Phoenix but said he has returned to the area every October since he retired in 1973.

"I will continue to do so as long as I am physically fit," McKee said.

According to his brother, Pat McKee, they made a pact to visit each other every year.

Pat McKee, 87, still lives in Cape Girardeau. He was a teacher for 38 years and retired in 1987. During the 1970s he ran as a Democratic candidate for Congress and has been a Democratic committeeman since the 1960s.

Pat McKee said he thinks his brother well deserved the level he reached in the Air Force.

"He more or less was one of the builders of the present day Air Force," he said.

Seth McKee began his military career in the Army National Guard, but later joined the Air Force in 1938 as an aviation cadet. He served for nearly 40 years working his way up to commander in chief of North American Air Defense Command and Continental Air Defense Command. This position he held for four years before his retirement.

McKee said he has been a four-star general for 43 years.

"There are only two four-star generals from Missouri before me," McKee said.

The general added that besides surviving, one of the highlights of his military career was flying 130 kinds of planes. He was a test pilot before leaving for World War II.

During his time in the military, he served as commanding officer in World War II, the Cold War and Vietnam War. During World War II, he held operation and command positions in locations such as England, France, Belgium and Germany. As a P-38 Lightning pilot, he was involved in 69 combat missions and commanded the air units at the Normandy invasion on D-Day.

According to Seth McKee, he is the highest ranked living survivor of the Normandy invasion and the Battle of the Bulge.

His career often took him overseas where he held positions such as chief technical adviser to the Italian air force and chief of the training branch for the U.S. Air Force headquarters in Europe. He also served as commander of the U.S. forces in Japan and the Fifth Air Force.

"Everyone of them had some attraction," Seth McKee said. "I never had a bad assignment as an officer."

His wife, Sarah, and three sons, Seth, William and Thomas, often traveled with him on those assignments. The general said his wife played an important role and worked in hospitals as a "Gray Lady," an American Red Cross volunteer. His sons, however, only traveled with him to Italy and Germany.

"By the time I got to Japan they were all grown up," Seth McKee said.

His career allowed him to work with several presidents: Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon.

"The presidents were by and large very nice," McKee said. "I had good relationships with a lot of them."

During his time in the service, he received several decorations and awards including the Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star, Legion of Merit with two oak leaf clusters, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with 10 oak leaf clusters, French Croix de with Palm, Belgian Croix de with Palm, Order of Leopold with Palm.

After his retirement in 1973, the general moved to Phoenix where he resides with is wife. They have eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

He served for a number of boards and corporations until he was in his mid 80s, including the board of directors of the Wackenhut Corp. for 19 years. According to him, during that time it was the largest security corporation in the U.S. with branches in about 60 foreign countries.

He received the Missouri Mule Skinner citation and the Alumni Merit Award from Southeast Missouri State University, both in 1971. McKee was also named an honorary general in the Missouri National Guard and an honorary citizen of Cape Girardeau.

"I have received a lot of honors from Missouri," he said.

ajones@semissourian.com

388-3654

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: