From the American Revolution to the Spanish-American War

Who was Daniel “Chappie” James Jr.?

In 1975 Daniel H. “Chappie” James Jr. (1920–1978) became the first black four-star general in the U.S. Air Force and was named commander-in-chief of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD). He was not only the first black air force four-star general, but also the first to be promoted to that rank in any of the U.S. armed forces. James was born in Pensacola, Florida. He was educated at Tuskegee University but was expelled for fighting in his senior year; he was not actually awarded his degree until twenty-seven years later. He enrolled in the Army Air Corps program, part of the government’s Civilian Pilot Training Program, while a student at Tuskegee and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1943. James earned renown as a military pilot as one of the original members of the famed “Tuskegee Airmen,” the all-black flying unit that faced tremendous racial bias during its training days and its initial flying engagements. Although his military career began in 1944, he was still flying combat missions during the Korean and Vietnam wars. In 1970 James was promoted to the rank of brigadier general, to major general in 1972, and to lieutenant general in 1974. His career spanned thirty-four years, ending with his retirement in 1978. He died of a heart attack less than a month after retirement. James’ many civilian and military awards included the Distinguished Flying Cross, a Distinguished Service Medal for Valor, and the George Washington Freedom Foundation Honor Medal, given to him in 1967 for his essay “Freedom—My Heritage, My Responsibility,” which he had written for a contest in the Stars and Stripes. James, who was the first black to command an integrated combat unit in the U.S. Army, endured much and achieved much. His career almost ended in 1950 when he was in a serious crash while flying in a two-seater plane. He is remembered as a patriotic American, a courageous and dedicated airman, and an advocate of racial equality in the armed forces.


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