By: Friedrich Seiltgen
Today, I bring you the story of a true hero: A man who grew up the youngest of 17 children, a man who exceled in education because his mother instilled in him the power of not quitting, an original Tuskegee Airmen, a veteran of three wars, a man who wouldn’t back down to segregation, a patriot, and the first African-American to attain the rank of O-10 in any branch of service. Daniel “Chappie” James Jr.
IN THE BEGINNING
Born in Pensacola, FL on February 11, 1920, James was the youngest of 17 children! Daniel inherited the nickname “Chappie” from his brother Charles, a football star at Florida A&M in Tallahassee. His father worked for the City of Pensacola gas company, and his mother ran a neighborhood school.
MRS. LILLIE A. JAMES SCHOOL
Chappie’s mother, Lillie Anna James, knew that her children would not get a proper education from the segregated schools of the time, so she started one of her own. Ms. James school was also opened to other children in the neighborhood. The school was housed in the James’ residence which is now a museum, flight academy and tribute to Ms. James and her son.
The students at Ms. James’ school were simply going to learn. The curriculum was tough with math, science, and of course, civics. Ms. James taught the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg address as she believed those documents were promises not delivered to all people. Ms. James 11thcommandment was “Thou Shalt Not Quit”
James would go on to attend Tuskegee University on a football scholarship. His mother’s school prepared him for the curriculum. As luck would have it, James was able to enroll in a government-sponsored flight training program as well.
James entered Army Air Corps flight training in 1943, got his commission and was assigned to instructor pilot duties with the All-Black 99th Pursuit Squadron, the “Red Tails.” James would not see combat this time, but Korea was waiting.
THE FREEMAN FIELD MUTINY AND AFTER
After WWII, James military future was in doubt. With the military drawing down, it was hard to find positions. On top of that, segregation in America was hampering his career. The Tuskegee airman protested segregation during the war and in April 1945 a protest at Freeman Army Airfield to integrate an all-white Officers club on base resulted in the arrest of 162 officers, with James being one of them.
KOREAN WAR AND AFTER
In 1950, James transferred from Clark Field, Philippines to Korea where he flew a total of 101 combat missions in the P-51 Mustang and F-80 Shooting Star. In 1951, James was transferred to Otis AFB, Massachusetts. It was back stateside where his career started to take off. James later took an assignment at the Pentagon where he met his future wing commander, Robin Olds. A tour at RAF Bentwaters, England, and Davis Monthan AFB, AZ followed. James also attended the Air Command and Staff College.
In December 1966, James transferred to Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand as deputy commander for operations with the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing. James was brought in and reunited with Colonel Robin Olds as his leadership and planning skills were needed. Due to the popularity of a certain television show in the U.S., he and Olds would become the duo known as “Blackman & Robin.” In 1967, Olds created Operation Bolo, which was a planned deception to use F-4 Phantoms electronically disguised as F-105’s to lure North Vietnamese fighters up to fight. When the smoke cleared, the Wolfpack’s 12 F-4 Phantoms went up against 14 MIG 21’s shooting down seven! James was credited with outstanding planning on the mission.
James went on to command the 7272nd fighter training wing at Wheelus Air Base in Tripoli, Libya. His confrontation with a young Moammar Qaddafi at Wheelus is one instance of his courage, and if there was one thing James had no shortage of, it was courage. In 1970, the U.S. was already in the process of leaving the base as improvements in missile technology made Wheelus obsolete as a bomber base.
On September 1, 1969, a coup d’état against Idris of Libya led by one Capt. Moammar Qaddafi was successful. Qaddafi began to flex his power immediately and decided to push back against the Americans at Wheelus. Qaddafi and his gang started to run personnel carriers through the base at high speed. James had the gates barricaded and ultimately confronted Qaddafi outside the front gate. Col. James started to read Qaddafi the riot act when he noticed the dictator moving his hand to the pistol he was carrying. “ I told him to move his hand away. If he pulled that gun, he never would have cleared his holster.” Qaddafi backed down and James completed the mission to leave Wheelus with dignity.
After the stellar job in Libya, James was called to D.C. by Melvin Laird, the Secretary of Defense under President Richard Nixon. Laird made him Deputy Secretary of Public Affairs and Chappie earned his first star. Laird knew that James was an excellent speaker and a Patriot.
“I’m a citizen of the United States of America, and I’m no second-class citizen either and no man here is unless he thinks like one and reasons like one and performs like one. This is my country, and I believe in her, and I will serve her, and I’ll contribute to her welfare whenever and however I can. If she has any ills, I’ll stand by her until in God’s given time, through her wisdom and her consideration for the welfare of the entire nation, she will put them right.
General Daniel “Chappie” James Jr
In 1975, James made history. He was made commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and promoted to O-10 Four-Star General, the First African-American to achieve the rank in any branch of the armed services.
James retired from the U.S.A.F. on February 1, 1978, due to a heart condition. Chappie would celebrate his birthday on February 11 only to be struck down on February 25 by a heart attack at the age of 58.
The James legacy lives on not only in the Air Force, but in Pensacola as well. In June 2020, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law the bill that names the new Pensacola Bay Bridge the General Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. bridge to honor this great Pensacola native son. Soon after, the General Chappie James Memorial Foundation announced that a memorial plaza in his honor will be built at the north end of the bridge. The memorial will consist of an F-4 Phantom detailed with the markings of his last fighter squadron at Ubon AB, Thailand, which will be mounted on a pedestal along with an 80-foot U.S. flagpole and a statue of James. The memorial will be dedicated September 18, 2022, the 75th anniversary of the United States Air Force.
Friedrich Seiltgen is a retired Master Police Officer with 20 years of service with the Orlando Police Department. He conducts training on lone wolf terrorism, firearms, first aid, and active shooter response in Florida. His writing has appeared in RECOIL, The Counter Terrorist Magazine, American Thinker, Homeland Security Today, and The Journal of Counterterrorism & Homeland Security International. Contact him at email@example.com