Daniel “Chappie” James was born on February 11, 1920, in segregated Pensacola, Florida, near the Pensacola Naval Air Station. He was the last born of his parents’ 17 children. His father, Daniel James worked at a local gas company while his mother, Lillie James founded her own school, the Lily A. James school, owing to segregation in the public school system.
In his teens, he pointed to a plane flying above his home and said one day he was going to fly. His friends reminded him that he was black – a handicap of sorts at the time due to racial segregation. Chappie never allowed racism to get in his way, however. He knew that someday he would fly. At about the age of 12, he began working at the airport near his home, in exchange for free rides and he quickly realized he would achieve the dream of becoming an aviator.
James inherited the nickname ‘Chappie’ from his older brother Charles. “Chappie” was a common reference to a smaller “Charles”. Do not be fooled by the nickname, Chappie was big enough to play tackle and earned a football scholarship to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. James credited his mom, the teacher with drilling into his head the importance of effort, preparation, and character.
In September 1937 he joined the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, as a student in physical education and quickly made a name for himself as an athlete and campus leader. He was expelled in his senior year for fighting and did not complete his degree until many years later.
Early 1942, at the onset of World War II, Tuskegee sponsored a flight training program that allowed Chappie to fulfill his dream to fly. He completed the Civilian Pilot Training Program at Tuskegee’s Kennedy Field and worked for a time there as a civilian flight instructor with Charles Alfred “Chief” Anderson. He earned his commission as a Second Lieutenant in July 1943 and became one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the first black pilots of the U.S. Air Corps.
James entered the military cadet flying training program at Tuskegee, early 1943, graduating in class 43G as a single-engine pilot on July 28, 1943. As a second lieutenant, he served with a squadron of the all-black 332nd Fighter Group that trained at Selfridge Field, near Mount Clemens, Michigan. 332nd Fighter Group pilots flew obsolete P-40 and later P-39 fighter planes.
He married Dorothy Watkins, who was from Tuskegee, on November 3, 1943. They would have three children, one of whom followed in his steps and became an Air Force general.
As the 332nd fighter group got deployed for overseas combat in1944, James went to Mather Field, near Sacramento, California. At 6 feet 5 inches, solidly built, he was among other Tuskegee-trained pilots who were too tall to fit comfortably in fighters. So they were instead selected to train in the twin-engine B-25 medium bomber. In the spring of 1944, he returned to Selfridge, serving with the 617th Bombardment Squadron of the 477th Bombardment Group. Although the 477th trained with B-25s to fight in the Pacific Theater of Operations. World War II ended before it had a chance to deploy or enter combat.
Following his mother’s example, James transitioned to teaching others his newfound skill. He was credited with teaching many of the black aviators who went on to fly during World War II. However, “Chappie” did not see combat until the Korean Conflict.
Three “hot” Wars
James served in three “hot” wars (fighting in two of them), World War II as a bomber trainer, and flew almost 200 combat missions in Korea and Vietnam, and held key Cold War leadership positions.
“Chappie” James’s career blossomed as a fighter pilot and leader. He flew 101 combat missions in Korea in the P-51 Mustang and the F-80 Shooting Star. He was also credited with many heroic acts and was highly decorated.
He was promoted to captain on October 31, 1950. After the Korean War, James served in a variety of U.S. Air Force units. He commanded the 60th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron at Otis Air Force Base in Massachusetts for a time, and, in late 1956 and early 1957, he attended the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Montgomery County. Between July 1957 and June 1960, he worked as a staff officer at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia.
“Chappie” James, then Col. James served at Ubon Royal Thai Air Base in Thailand between December 1966 and December 1967. He first served as Deputy Commander for Operations and then as Vice Commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing known as the Wolf Pack. He flew 78 combat missions in the F4 Phantom in Vietnam. He is credited with at least one MIG kill and was a flight leader during the famed Bolo MIG sweep, the largest MIG 21 kill mission of the entire Vietnam war.
Later in the decade, he moved to Wheelus Air Base in Libya, where he served as commander of the 7272nd Flying Training Wing between August 1969 and March 1970. While stationed in Libya during General Muammar Gaddafi’s overthrow of King Idris, he had a face-to-face standoff with Gaddafi. On 1 September 1969, King Idris I, was overthrown by a group of military officers loyal to Muammar al-Gaddafi. Before the revolution, the U.S. and Libya had already reached an agreement on U.S. withdrawal from Wheelus.
As the final days for Wheelus approached, Gaddafi ran a column of half-tracks through the base housing area at full speed. James shut the gate to prevent further passage and met Gaddafi a few yards outside the barrier. The US commander noted that the Libyan had a fancy gun in a holster strapped to his leg. As the pair talked Gaddafi moved his hand onto the grip of the weapon. “I told him to move his hand away. If he had pulled that gun, he never would have cleared his holster,” James recalled. The moment passed without escalation, and a short time later James completed the removal of 4,000 people and $21 million in assets from a base the US had hosted warplanes at since 1943. Wheelus was returned to the new Libyan government on 11 June 1970. Their face-to-face standoff became an Air Force legend.
In 1969, President Nixon nominated Daniel “Chappie” James to Brigadier General, making him the first African American General in the U.S. Military. After receiving this star, he was assigned to the Pentagon Public Affairs Office. Between March 1970 and August 1974, while at the Pentagon in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, he rose to the ranks of brigadier general, major general, and lieutenant general. He was the second African American to become an Air Force general, after Benjamin O. Davis Jr.
In September 1975 James was promoted and became the first black four-star general in the Air Force. At the same time, he assumed command of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) and Aerospace Defense Command. In that capacity, he was responsible for the air defense of North America, including both Canada and the United States, and for providing warning and assessment of hostile bomber or missile attacks.
He not only was the first black four-star general in the Air Force but also was the first black four-star general in any of the American military services.
He received numerous honorary degrees and accolades in addition to earning a Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with seven Oak Leaf Clusters (equivalent to earning eight Air Medals), a Distinguished Unit Citation, a Presidential Unit Citation, and an Air Force Outstanding Unit Award.
He died of a heart attack on February 25, 1978, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, less than a month after his formal retirement, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
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