Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. (February 11, 1920 – February 25, 1978) was a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, who in 1975 became the first black American to reach the rank of four-star general.
World War II
James graduated from the Tuskegee Institute in 1942 where he received a bachelor of science degree in physical education. He continued civilian pilot training under the government-sponsored Civilian Pilot Training Program. He remained at Tuskegee as a civilian instructor pilot in the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet Program until January 1943, when he entered the program as a cadet and received his commission as a second lieutenant later that July. Throughout the remainder of the war James trained pilots for the all-black 99th Pursuit Squadron. He did not see combat until the Korean War
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.
James returned to the United States, and in July 1951 went to Otis Air Force Base, Massachusetts 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, Arizona, where he was director of operations training and later deputy commander for operations for the 4453rd Combat Crew Training Wing.
Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. (standing) in August 1967, addressing a conference at Ubon Air Base, Thailand. Robin Olds is sitting to his right.
James went to Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand in December 1966, as deputy commander for operations, 8th TFW. In June 1967, under Colonel 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.
Colonel (at the time) Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. in front of his McDonnell-Douglas F-4C Phantom in Thailand during the Vietnam War.
Arlington National Cemetery
He was named vice commander of the 33rd TFW at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, 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.
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 September 1, 1974, he assumed duty as vice commander of the Military Airlift Command (MAC), headquartered at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois.
James was promoted to four-star grade and assigned as commander in chief of NORAD/ADCOM at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, on September 1, 1975. In these dual capacities he had operational command of all United States and Canadian strategic aerospace defense forces. On December 6, 1977, he assumed duty as special assistant to the Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force.
General James was widely known for his speeches on Americanism and patriotism, for which he was editorialized in numerous national and international publications. Excerpts from some of the speeches have been read into the Congressional Record. He was awarded the George Washington Freedom Foundation Medal in both 1967 and 1968. He received the Arnold Air Society Eugene M. Zuckert Award in 1970 for outstanding contributions to Air Force professionalism. His citation read “… fighter pilot with a magnificent record, public speaker, and eloquent spokesman for the American Dream we so rarely achieve.”
Other civilian awards that General James received included the following: Builders of a Greater Arizona Award (1969); Phoenix Urban League Man of the Year Award, Distinguished Service Achievement Award from Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity (1970); American Legion National Commander’s Public Relations Award, Veteran of Foreign Wars Commander in Chief’s Gold Medal Award and Citation (1971); Capital Press Club, Washington, D.C., Salute to Black Pioneers Award (1975); and, all in 1976, the Air Force Association Jimmy Doolittle Chapter Man of the Year Award, Florida Association of Broadcasters’ Gold Medal Award, American Veterans of World War II Silver Helmet Award, United Service Organization Liberty Bell Award, Blackbook Minority Business and Reference Guidance Par Excellence Award, American Academy of Achievement Golden Plate Award, United Negro College Fund’s Distinguished Service Award, Horatio Alger Award, VFW Americanism Medal, Bishop Wright Air Industry Award, and the Kitty Hawk Award (Military). He was awarded honorary doctor of laws degrees from the University of West Florida in 1971; the University of Akron in 1973; Virginia State College in 1974; Delaware State College in 1975; and St. Louis University in 1976. He was named honorary national commander of the Arnold Air Society in 1971.
General James died of a heart attack on February 25, 1978, just two weeks after his 58th birthday and three weeks following his retirement from the Air Force.
General James’s son, Lieutenant General Daniel James III, also served in the United States Air Force 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.