Daniel James Jr.: First Air Force African American four-star General

Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. was an American fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, who in 1975 became the first African American to reach the rank of four-star General in the armed forces.

He attended the famous Tuskegee Institute and instructed African American pilots during World War II. He flew combat missions during the Korean War and Vietnam War, and received the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, two Air Force Distinguished Service Medals, two Legion of Merits, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, Meritorious Service Medal and fourteen Air Medals.

Daniel James Jr. was born Feb. 11, 1920, to Daniel and Lillie Anna James. Daniel James Sr. worked for the Pensacola city gas company, while his mother, Lillie Anna James, was a high school teacher who established a private school for her own and other black children in Pensacola, Fla.

His mother would continue to run the “Lillie A. James School” until her death at the age of 82.

James graduated from Tuskegee University in 1942, receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in physical education.

James continued civilian pilot training under the government-sponsored Civilian Pilot Training Program. He then enlisted in the Aviation Cadet Program of the U.S. Army Air Forces on Jan. 18, 1943, receiving his commission as a second lieutenant, along with his pilot wings, at Tuskegee Army Airfield, Ala., on July 28, 1943. He remained at Tuskegee as a civilian instructor pilot in the Army Air Corps. Throughout the remainder of the war James trained pilots for the all-black 99th Pursuit Squadron.

Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. as an F-4 pilot during the Vietnam War. (Air Force photograph )

After completing P-40 Warhawk training and then B-25 Mitchell training, James served as a B-25 pilot with the 617th Bomb Squadron of the 477th Bomb Group at Godman Army Airfield and then at Lockbourne Army Airfield from January 1944 until the end of the war.

He did not see combat himself until the Korean War.

While stationed at Lockbourne Army Airfield in Ohio, James served as a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot with the 301st Fighter Squadron from July 1947 to October 1948, and then served as on the staff of the 332nd Air Base Group at Lockbourne from November 1948 to September 1949.

In September 1949, James went to the Philippines as flight leader for the 12th Fighter-Bomber Squadron, 18th Fighter Wing at Clark Field. In July 1950 he left for Korea, where he flew 101 combat missions in P-51 Mustang and F-80 aircraft. His combat missions were with the 67th Fighter Bomber Squadron, 12th Fighter Bomber Squadron, and 44th Fighter Bomber Squadron.

James returned to the United States, and in July 1951 went to Otis Air Force Base, Mass., as an all-weather jet fighter pilot with the 58th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, later becoming operations officer. In April 1953, he became commander of the 437th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, and assumed command of the 60th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron in August 1955. While stationed at Otis, he received the Massachusetts Junior Chamber of Commerce 1954 award of “Young Man of the Year” for his outstanding community relations efforts. On August 15, 1954, he appeared as a contestant on the game show What’s My Line? He graduated from the Air Command and Staff College in June 1957.

James next was assigned to Headquarters U.S. Air Force as a staff officer in the Air Defense Division of the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations. In July 1960 he was transferred to RAF Bentwaters in England, where he served successively as assistant director of operations and then director of operations, 81st Tactical Fighter Wing; commander, 92nd Tactical Fighter Squadron; and deputy commander for operations for the 81st Wing. In September 1964, James was transferred to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., where he was director of operations training and later deputy commander for operations for the 4453rd Combat Crew Training Wing.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Daniel James III receives the Distinguished Flying Cross from his father, Air Force Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. (Air National Guard photograph)

James went to Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, in December 1966, as deputy commander for operations, 8th TFW. In June 1967, under Col. Robin Olds, he was named wing vice commander when Col. Vermont Garrison completed his tour. Both in their mid-40s, they formed a legendary team nicknamed “Blackman and Robin.” James flew 78 combat missions into North Vietnam, many in the Hanoi/Haiphong area, and led a flight in the “Operation Bolo” MiG sweep in which seven Communist MiG-21s were destroyed, the highest total kill of any mission during the Vietnam War.

He was named vice commander of the 33rd TFW at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., in December 1967. While stationed at Eglin, the Florida State Jaycees named James as Florida’s “Outstanding American of the Year” for 1969, and he received the Jaycee Distinguished Service Award. He was transferred to Wheelus Air Base in the Libyan Arab Republic in August 1969 as Commander of the 7272nd Fighter Training Wing.

Following the coup engineered by radical Libyan officers, including Mohammar Qaddafi, James had a tense standoff with the militants in the late stages of turning Wheelus over to the Libyans. James was determined not to be pushed off the base early, but Qaddafi and his followers began pushing the Americans to see how far they could go and at one point “ran a column of half-tracks through the base housing area at full speed”. Following this escalation, James closed the gates of the base. Qaddafi arrived at the gate and while talking to James, moved his hand over to his pistol holster to which James replied: “I told him to move his hand away. If he had pulled that gun, his hand would have never cleared the holster.”

James became Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs) in March 1970 and was designated principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs) in April 1973. On Sept. 1, 1974, he assumed duty as vice commander of the Military Airlift Command, headquartered at Scott Air Force Base, Ill.

Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr., United States Air Force. (Air Force photograph)

On Sept. 1, 1975, James was promoted to the rank of four-star general and assigned as commander in chief of NORAD/ADCOM at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. In these dual capacities he had operational command of all United States and Canadian strategic aerospace defense forces. On Dec. 6, 1977, he assumed duty as special assistant to the Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force.

General James retired from the Air Force on Jan. 31, 1978.

James was widely known for his speeches on Americanism and patriotism, for which he was editorialized in numerous national and international publications.

James died of a heart attack on Feb. 25, 1978, just two weeks after his 58th birthday and three weeks following his retirement from the Air Force. An earlier heart attack had forced his retirement. He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

James met his wife Dorothy while he was at Tuskegee Institute and they were married on the campus on Nov. 3, 1942. They had two sons and one daughter. General James’s son, Lt. Gen. Daniel James III, also served in the United States Air Force as a fighter pilot and in the Texas Air National Guard. He served from 1995 to 2002 as the Adjutant General of the Texas National Guard (the first African American to hold the post), and as Director of the Air National Guard from 2002 to 2006. In the summer of 2006, he retired from the Air Force at the rank of lieutenant general after 38 years of total commissioned service, on active duty and as an Air Guardsman.

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