On a warm summer day in 1975, Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. stood at attention on the parade grounds at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado and suddenly felt an added weight on his shoulders. A polished metal-clad star gleamed in the sunlight — a brand new fourth star pinned on his shoulders, marking an extraordinary point in time for a man and all of America.
At that moment, the son of both a school teacher and a lamplighter born into slavery, had been recognized as the first African American four-star general in American history.
One thing was certain, however — Chappie was always destined for success.
Growing up in a three-room shotgun home in Pensacola’s Eastside north of downtown, he would point to planes flying overhead and said one day he was going to fly just like those pilots he’d see soar over his home. There was just one thing holding him back: he was black.
Despite all the challenges he faced as a young black American, Chappie would never let his race get in the way of his success. When he was a young boy, his mother Lillie instilled in him that there was an 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not quit.”
This was a lesson that Chappie never forgot.
Upon graduating high school when he was just 17, he would go on to attend the renowned Tuskegee Institute, the first institution of higher learning for African Americans in the United States. It was at Tuskegee where he would later become an instructor pilot in the Army Air Corps in the lead up to World War II. As he rose through the ranks of military service, General James became a symbol for African Americans across the country in the continued struggle for racial equality. In one notable event as a young officer, James and several other black pilots were arrested for staging a “sit‐in” at an all-white officer’s club in Indiana. This would be just one of the first tests of courage he’d be faced with during his military service.
Throughout his career, he served in multiple wars and conflicts over nearly four decades. He fought through four major global conflicts — World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War — and flew nearly 200 combat missions over enemy territory.
The imposing man who stood 6 feet, 4 inches and weighed 230 pounds, was something of a John Wayne figure. But unlike the Hollywood movie star, James did remarkable and legendary things in real life.
In 1969, James had a tense confrontation with one of the world’s most infamous and brutal dictators — General Moammar Gaddafi of Libya — that nearly turned out to be a duel in the North African desert.
While many in America were celebrating the “Summer of ‘69” back home with events like Woodstock, it was in the Libyan desert where a then-Colonel Chappie James would forge his status as a true legend and American hero.
Earlier that year, James took command of Wheelus Air Force Base in Libya during a time of peace between the country and the United States. That summer, General Gaddafi would spark a violent coup that overthrew Libyan King Idris.
In the wake of the coup, Gaddafi demanded that the Americans shut down the base and all U.S. troops leave the country. The dictator besieged the American base and approached U.S. and allied troops. James would later recollect the incident with Gaddafi in what reads like a script out of the movies.
“One day Gaddafi ran a column of half-tracks through my base—right through the housing area at full speed,” James recalled. “I shut the barrier down at the gate and met Gaddafi a few yards outside it. He had a fancy gun and a holster and kept his hand on it. I had my .45 in my belt. I told him to move his hand away. If he had pulled that gun, he never would have cleared his holster.”
Needless to say, James never blinked and Gaddafi never pulled that “fancy gun.” The American General stood his ground and in the process became recognized as a military legend by his troops and all of America.
After the showdown in the Libyan desert, James would go on to serve as commander of various units, breaking barriers every step of the way. At the height of his career, James was charged with overseeing tens of thousands of men and women as the commander of North American Air Defense Command and had operational command of all North American forces. As President Reagan would later state about his esteemed service, “All of America depended on Chappie’s judgment and his courage for our defense and survival.”
James retired from the U.S. Air Force in February 1978 after 35 years of service. Tragically, he died of a heart attack less than a month after retiring from the military he loved. He was a warrior and hero that left us far too soon, but his legacy lives on as an inspiration for all Americans, especially in his hometown of Pensacola. In 2020, the Pensacola Bay Bridge was officially named the Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Bridge, and a group of local veterans are raising funds to erect a statue in his honor.
His childhood birthplace at 1606 Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and operated as a state museum. Not only was this the childhood home of Chappie James and his 16 brothers and sisters, but it also served as a place where African-American children in Pensacola attended school and attained much of their education.