VA Palo Alto Health Care System
General Daniel “Chappie" James
Dr. Carter G. Woodson initiated Black History Week in 1915 and chose the month of February in honor of the births of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, two key figures in the history of African Americans. President Ford and subsequent Presidents established Black History Month by proclamation and then law to recognize the struggles, achievements and countless significant contributions Black Americans have made to this great nation.
This February, we recognize and celebrate the life of one such American, General Daniel “Chappie” James. Coincidentally General James was born February 11, 1920, in Pensacola, Florida.
The personal values General Daniel “Chappie” James demonstrated throughout his life and his career achievements in the United States Air Force epitomize the five Core Values of VA: Integrity, Commitment, Advocacy, Respect, and Excellence.
During his youth, “Chappie” James, then addressed as Daniel, was more fortunate than many. He had a stable home, a father with full-time work as a lamplighter, and a mother who spent 52 years of her life teaching and managing a home school for neighborhood children. Daniel credits his parents and especially his mother with teaching him many of life’s lessons. The character of the James’s family gave Daniel a sense of humor, a sense he could succeed if he worked hard, and a sense of freedom and fair play. His mother drove home what she called the eleventh commandment, “Thou shalt not quit” and the power of excellence. She let him know that if he excelled, he would have the ability to break down racial barriers and be recognized. Her influence along with his discipline and perseverance motivated him to excel in life and in the United States Air Force, becoming an inspiration to many Americans.
At a very early age Daniel watched airplanes at a nearby airport and dreamed of being a pilot one day. At about the age of 12, he began working at the airport in exchange for free rides and he quickly realized he would achieve the dream of becoming an aviator.
The young Daniel James was awarded a scholarship for football at the famed Tuskegee Institute where he also pursued his dream of learning to fly, completing training at the top of his 1942 aviation class. It was about this same time that “Chappie,” a nickname given to him by his brother Charles, became his identity. He enlisted and was commissioned as second lieutenant in the Army Air Corp in 1943. Following the example he had seen from his mother, Daniel 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.
At the time “Chappie” enlisted, the US Military was segregated and was supposed to treat the segregated units and clubs as “separate but equal.” Blacks however remained excluded in many ways, including preventing them from belonging to the Officers or Enlisted Clubs. “Chappie” and many others advocated for blacks to be treated the same as whites and succeeded in influencing President Truman by 1948 to declare it illegal to have separate units and clubs.
“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, was credited with many heroic acts, and was highly decorated. He then went on to fly 78 combat missions in the F4 Phantom in Vietnam, serving as the Vice Commander 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, known as the Wolf Pack. 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. While stationed in Libya during the General Muammar Gaddafi overthrow of King Idris, he had a face-to-face standoff with Gaddafi. He successfully managed the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Libya.
In 1969, President Nixon nominated Daniel “Chappie” James to Brigadier General, making him the first African American General in the U.S. Military. Following the pinning on of his star he was assigned to the Pentagon Public Affairs Office. General James was a terrific speaker and the Pentagon used his talents effectively, speaking to high school students, servicemen and women, wives of POWs, and Congressmen and Senators. He spoke with conviction and passion and always on the theme of his love of country and the defense of this great nation. It has been said that if you find one of his speeches you found them all.
General Daniel “Chappie” James was promoted to the rank of four-star General in 1975, the first African American to attain this rank. His final assignment was the commander-in-chief of North American Air Defense, NORAD. General James retired in 1978 and sadly, passed away just three weeks following his retirement.
An excerpt from an essay General James wrote in 1967, following his receiving the George Washington Freedom Medal, provides the keenest insight to his beliefs and why he is an inspiration to many Americans:
“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.”