Daniel "Chappie" James, Jr. (1920-1978) was the first African American man to become a four star general in the history of the U.S. military.
Daniel "Chappie" James was born in Pensacola, Florida, in 1920, the last of 17 children. His father was a laborer and his mother a teacher who conducted a school for African American youths in the backyard of the James' home. James' mother was diligent about preparing her offspring and her students to confront racial prejudice. She emphasized that they should strive for academic excellence in order to demonstrate that the African American was inferior to none. She believed that if blacks performed well, whites would acknowledge their achievements and racial discrimination would gradually end. She encouraged her students with her "eleventh" commandment, "Thou shalt never quit."
Together James' parents imbued him with a desire to succeed, the gift of laughter, and a sense of freedom and fair play. All of these characteristics would prove invaluable to him in his career as a leader of men. James was popular and reasonably successful in high school. He planned to go to Tuskegee Institute but feared that his plans would fail when his father died before he graduated from high school. However, his mother and older brothers and sisters assured him that they would help him pay his tuition and fees.
James' interests wavered among music, drama, and football, but he was unswerving in his desire to become a military pilot. While he was growing up in Pensacola he often observed flights at a nearby naval air base and dreamed about flying a plane himself. Many of his friends laughed at the idea of an African American youth becoming a pilot—something that was almost unheard of at the time—but James had been taught to firmly believe in himself and his capabilities.
When James enrolled at Tuskegee in 1937, he was over six feet tall and considered quite handsome by many of the coeds. James led his fellow students into a variety of escapades during his undergraduate years, but in his senior year he pushed the school's administrators too far and they expelled him. In 1969, after almost 30 years passed, Tuskegee awarded James a bachelor of science degree based on the numerous credit hours he had earned during his military career.
James' expulsion proved to be a blessing in disguise. A civilian pilot training program had been established at Tuskegee and young men were being actively recruited. The training school for the Tuskegee airmen was an experimental program designed to determine the ability of African American men to perform satisfactorily as pilots. James qualified for training and embarked on the very career he had dreamed about. He not only learned how to fly but began to teach other trainees. James subsequently enlisted in the Army Air Force and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1943.
Because the armed forces were rigidly segregated by race, African American officers and enlisted men often faced tense racial situations in military and civilian life. When James was assigned to Selfridge Field in Michigan he found that African American officers were humiliated in a number of ways, including their exclusion from the officer's club. The military was legally obligated to provide separate but equal facilities for blacks and whites. Since this racial policy proved to be costly, military commanders often failed to provide equal facilities for African Americans. Dissatisfaction among African American officers and enlisted men, coupled with the expense of segregation, prompted President Harry Truman to declare it illegal in 1948.
James flew 101 combat missions during the Korean War and 78 missions in North Vietnam while he was stationed in Thailand. After his tour in Southeast Asia, James was named vice commander of the 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing at Elgin Air Force Base in Florida. One of his most challenging assignments, however, was the command of the 7272nd Flying Training Wing at Wheelus Air Force Base in Libya. The time James spent in Libya—from fall 1969 until spring 1970—was critical because General Muammar Gaddafi, who had led a successful coup d'etat against Libyan King Idris in September 1969, wanted the Americans out immediately. After the United States decided to evacuate, James directed the operation.
In December 1969 James learned that he had been nominated by President Richard M. Nixon to be promoted to the rank of brigadier general. His next assignment was in the Pentagon Public Affairs Office. In this position he travelled around the country speaking to various groups, including dissatisfied African American servicemen, high school and college students, and the wives of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam who were either missing in action or prisoners of war. He attempted to combat both anti-Vietnam War sentiment and racial antipathy by cogently stating the necessity for unity and patriotism. James, who had been promoted to lieutenant general in 1973, became a four star general in 1975 and was assigned to be the commander-in-chief of North American Air Defense (NORAD), the primary defense system for the United States and Canada. After successfully serving in this position for several years, James retired in 1978. Within several weeks of his retirement he died of a heart ailment.
James R. McGovern has written a biography of James entitled Black Eagle, General Daniel "Chappie" James, Jr. (1985). Carolyn Dubose wrote "Chappie James, A New Role for an Old Warrior," for the October 1970 Ebony magazine.
Two helpful general studies about Blacks in the military are Richard M. Dalfiume, Desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces: Fighting on Two Fronts, 1939-1953 (1969) and Morris J. MacGregor, Jr., Integration of the Armed Forces, 1940-1965 (1981).
Phelps, J. Alfred, Chappie: America's first Black four-star general: the life and times of Daniel James, Jr., Novato, CA: Presidio, 1992.