The amazing World War I story of McGhee Tyson

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith
  • I.G. Brown Training and Education Center

This July, 100 years ago, Charles McGhee Tyson, a Princeton University Graduate and a successful textile businessman in Knoxville, Tenn., enlisted as a seaman, second class, into the U.S. Naval Reserve Flying Corps. His service and sacrifice in the Great War would make him one of the area’s more memorialized service members.

Those who ever served at McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base or flew into McGhee Tyson Airport probably know the name, but some are not aware of the man and the family behind it. 

McGhee Tyson’s enlistment in 1917 was about four months following our nation’s entry into World War I. The lieutenant earned his commission in 1918 and ended up at an aerial unit at Naval Air Station Killingholme on England’s east coast in Lincolnshire - the United States took command of the station just that summer. 

Historians say that the aircrews at Killingholme went out on long patrols over the North Sea, scouting for German submarines. The Americans flew British Short seaplanes as well as Curtiss H-16 seaplanes. The Curtiss aircraft was a biplane that carried an aircrew of four, including a bow gunner perilously exposed out front with a 0.30 cal. Lewis aircraft machine gun as well as the bomber’s site. 

McGhee Tyson volunteered as a bow gunner on an Oct. 11, 1918, mission to lay mines. Their seaplane crashed into the water, killing Tyson and two enlisted men. The pilot survived. (McGhee Tyson was reported missing.) 

At the same time, McGhee Tyson’s father, now in his 50’s, was an Army Brigadier General in the National Guard’s 30th Division, commanding the 59th Brigade, fighting an offensive against the Germans. 

Brig. Gen. Lawrence Tyson, born on the 4th of July in 1861, was an Indian Wars and Spanish-American War veteran, among accomplishments in East Tennessee business, education, service, and philanthropy. 

On the notification of his son's crash and missing status, General Tyson left as soon as he could, but he had to fight a battle. 

The division was in Northern France among 13 other allied divisions in the Battle of St Quentin Canal during the Great War’s 100 Days Offensive. The 59th broke the German line and captured about 1,500 enemy soldiers but suffered a greater number of casualties, with nine men earning the Medal of Honor and Tyson awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. 

General Tyson left for England and found his son by searching the shoreline in a boat. He sent the body home for interment in Knoxville’s Old Gray Cemetery. 

After the war, Tyson ran and served as a U.S. Senator. The general and his wife, Bettie, donated land to the city with the condition that the airport on Sutherland Avenue memorialized McGhee Tyson with its name. Although the airport moved years later to Blount County, it kept the honor. 

You can find McGhee Tyson’s name listed on the East Tennessee Veteran’s Memorial, Pillar IV, top panel, near Knoxville World’s Fair Park. General Tyson's grave is at Old Gray Cemetery with his family. The Tyson family dog, Bonita, is the only gravesite you will find at the University of Tennessee, at the Tyson Alumni House, which is the former Tyson family home. Tyson Park on Third Creek came from family land given to the city.