Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr.
James assumed command of Wheelus Air Force Base, Libya in 1969, in the wake of Colonel Muammar Khadafy’s coup. James recalled an incident with Khadafy shortly after the takeover. “One day Khadafy ran a column of half tracks through my base—right through the housing area at full speed. I shut the barrier down at the gate and met Khadafy a few yards outside it. He had a fancy gun and a holster and kept his hand on it. I had my .45 in my belt. I told him to move his hand away. If he had pulled that gun, he never would have cleared his holster. They never sent any more half tracks.”
- Became a member of the Tuskegee Airmen in July 1943.
- During the Korean Conflict he flew 101 combat missions in the P-51 and F-80.
- In 1966 became vice commander of the Eighth Tactical Fighter Wing in Thailand, flying 78 combat missions over North Vietnam.
- First African-American four-star general in the history of the USAF.
Daniel “Chappie” James was born in 1920 in segregated Pensacola, Florida, near the Pensacola Naval Air Station. In his teens, he pointed to a plane flying above his home and said one day he was going to fly. His friends quickly reminded him of his one handicap: he was black. Chappie never allowed racism to get in his way, however. He knew that someday he would fly.
In 1937 he attended the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and quickly made a name for himself as an athlete and campus leader. When World War II broke out, Tuskegee sponsored a flight training program which gave Chappie the opportunity to fulfill his dream to fly. In July 1943, he earned his commission as a Second Lieutenant and became one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the first black pilots of the U.S. Air Corps.
His first assignment was to Selfridge Field’s 477th Bombardment Group to train in B-25s. His unit was completely segregated and the men, many of them recently returned combat veterans, resented these arrangements. The unit moved to Freeman Field in Indiana where an incident occurred that drew national attention. A group of African-American officers went into a white officers’ club and subsequently were arrested and charged with mutiny and disobedience of orders. Over 100 black officers, including Lt. James went into custody after they refused to sign a directive that legitimized separate facilities for black and white officers. Lt. James acted as a courier between the arrested airmen and the outside world during this incident. He worked with William T. Coleman, a future Secretary of Transportation, and Coleman Young, the future Mayor of Detroit. Their lawyer was future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. The resulting negotiations prompted Secretary of War Henry Stimson to declare that no longer could separation of military personnel be based on race in the use of facilities, including officers’ clubs. It proved to be a great victory for African-American equality.
In 1949, Chappie was stationed at Clarke Air Base in the Philippines. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for valor when he and a fellow pilot experienced a flame-out in a T-33 at 50 feet above the ground. The crash knocked the pilot in the front seat unconscious by the crash and Chappie had to smash his back against the canopy to break it open. He rescued the other pilot just before the plane burst into flames. After recuperating in the hospital, Chappie received orders to Korea, where he flew 101 combat missions in the F-51 and F-80 aircraft. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1950 for leading a flight of F-51 Mustangs in a close air support mission in support of U.N. troops. His heroics during this mission saved the U.S. soldiers from annihilation.
After the Korean War, James rose rapidly in rank, attaining major in 1952 and lieutenant colonel in 1956. The civilian sector was also beginning to recognize his outstanding personal qualities as well. His leadership and public speaking among the young people of the Otis Air Force Base area helped him to be selected “Young Man of the Year” by the Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce in 1954.
In June 1967, Colonel James became Vice Wing Commander of the Eighth Tactical Fighter Wing in Thailand under the command of Colonel Robin Olds. Chappie flew 78 combat missions over North Vietnam. On one mission he led a flight in the Bolo MIG sweep in which seven MIG 21s were destroyed, the highest total MIG kill of any mission during the war.
In 1969, James received orders to Wheelus Air Force Base in Libya. He assumed command in the wake of the infamous Muammar Khadafy’s coup. This coup brought Khadafy to power and sent the previous Libyan ruler, the pro-U.S. King Idris, into exile. James personally recalled one incident with Khadafy: “One day Khadafy ran a column of half tracks through my base – right through the housing area at full speed. I shut the barrier down at the gate and met Khadafy a few yards outside it. He had a fancy gun and a holster and kept his hand on it. I had my .45 in my belt. I told him to move his hand away. If he had pulled that gun, he never would have cleared his holster. They never sent any more half tracks.” His handling of the Khadafy incident prompted President Nixon to nominate him for Brigadier General in 1970. James was then assigned as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Public Affairs, and later designated Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Public Affairs in 1973.
General James’s rapid rise to flag officer culminated in August 1975 with his assignment as Commander in Chief, North American Air Defense Command at which time he was promoted to the rank of four-star general. He was affectionately called the “Black Eagle” by his fellow pilots because they noticed his special skill in the aerial arena, but more important than his aerial skills was his impeccable ethics of achievement, hard work, and self-reliance. His many appearances at schools and colleges convinced many African-Americans that they too could take to the sky.
An excerpt from an essay General James wrote in 1967 after he received the George Washington Freedom Medal. The essay embodied all that General Chappie James stood for:
“The strength of the United States of America lies in its unity. It lies in free men blessed and ordained with the rights of freedom working to provide, build, enjoy, and grow. Those who would subvert us – or any free people – try to disrupt this unity by breaking the small parts from the whole – driving in the wedges of fear and discontent. I am a Negro and, therefore, I am subject to their constant harangue. They say: You, James, are a member of a minority – you are a black man.” They say: “You should be disgusted with this American society – this so-called democracy.” They say: “you can only progress so far in any field that you choose before somebody puts his foot on your neck for no other reason than you are black.” They say: “You are a second-class citizen.”
“My heritage of freedom provides my reply. To them I say: ‘I am a citizen of the United States of America. I am not a second-class citizen and no man here is unless he thinks like one, reasons like one or performs like one. This is my country and I believe in her, and I believe in her flag, and I’ll defend her, and I’ll fight for her and serve her. If she has any ills, I’ll stand by her and hold her hand until in God’s given time, through her wisdom and her consideration for the welfare of the entire nation, things are made right again.’”
“Today’s world situation requires strong men to stand up and be counted – no matter what their personal grievances are. Our greatest weapon is one we have always possessed – our heritage of freedom, our unity as a nation.”
General Daniel James died of a heart attack on February 25th, 1978. His legacy and philosophy of self-reliance live on as inspirations for all Americans.
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