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PHOENIX — Gen. Seth McKee, a four-star general who was the highest-ranking survivor of the D-Day invasion of France during World War II, has died. He was 100.
McKee died Dec. 26 in Scottsdale, said his wife of 75 years, Sally.
McKee led a group of fighter planes providing air cover for troops invading the beach at Normandy in June 1944. In a 2014 interview, McKee described his birds-eye view of the armada headed from England to France for the mission.
“I could have walked across those ship decks and kept my feet dry all across the English Channel,” McKee said.
McKee said Germany did not launch any retaliatory aircraft during the mission, but he engaged in dogfights as the war continued inland. McKee said he flew 69 missions and his plane would take at least one hit on most. He recalled nine consecutive missions on which his engine was shot out.
“If you were afraid to die, you can’t be a fighter pilot in the war,” he said. “Chances were you were not going to make it.”
McKee said he didn’t think about the danger, even when after a mission parts of his plane looked like a sieve.
“It didn’t get to me at the time,” he said. “I knew I was the best fighter pilot in the war and I was pretty lucky.”
After the war, McKee held most every rank in the Air Force. His final post before retirement was as commander of NORAD, the anti-nuclear missile defense center in Colorado. He earned his fourth star when he took that command.
Among his retirement gifts in 1973 was a replica of the red phone he would have used to notify the president should the country have come under attack.
“It was a no-win situation,” McKee said of the Cold War nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union. “When you are in a no-win situation, you don’t start the fight normally.”
McKee said leadership roles came naturally to him. “I always liked to be in command,” McKee said. “I always liked to be in charge. I was able to do it in every place except my marriage.”
McKee, who grew up in Missouri, said he was lured into the cockpit after watching planes soar overhead while he marched with National Guard troops. At the time, the planes had open cockpits and McKee remembered seeing the pilots’ scarves blowing in the wind.
“By golly,” McKee recalled thinking, “if I ever get involved with the military, I’m going to be up there and not down here.”
He joined the Army Air Corps to earn money for medical school. But he made the Air Force his career.
After retiring from the military, McKee moved to Arizona. He also lived in Florida for a time before returning to a condominium in the Biltmore-area of Phoenix. At 97, he still drove and did so, according to his wife, like a fighter pilot.
In November, on McKee’s 100th birthday, he was made a Chevalier in the National Order of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest honor.
William McKee, one of the general’s sons, said Seth McKee had for years turned down honors and ceremonies, but accepted this one so his great grandchildren could witness history.
McKee unexpectedly rose from his wheelchair to receive the medal.
“My dad surprised everybody by rising up to the occasion to receive the honor,” William McKee said.
McKee had strong opinions on the role of the military.
“I don’t like war,” he said in 2014. “When man has to resort to war to revolve his affairs, he’s reached about his lowest level. We’re back to the caveman days where you grab a club.”
McKee said he thinks that World War II was the last war the country entered with the intent to win. He said the military was used, at times, to help protect financial interests of powerful people or corporations and not for the benefit of the country as a whole.
McKee said he killed thousands of people during his military career.
“These guys have mothers and sisters and brothers and I felt for them,” he said. “But they were fighting for their country, I was fighting for my country and we were going to win.”
McKee is survived by his wife, Sally; sons Seth Jr., William and Thomas; eight grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.
Follow Richard Ruelas on Twitter: @ruelaswritings
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