Another of the great Tuskegee airmen was Daniel ("Chappie") James, Jr. Chappie won his wings and a commission in 1943 but did not see combat in World War II. After the war, James quickly earned a reputation as an outstanding fighter pilot. In Korea he flew 100 combat missions, and in Vietnam-by 1965 he was a full colonel-he flew over threescore more. Not only was that war unpopular, but racial unrest was exploding into violence all over the United States. James returned from Vietnam and was often called upon to defend not only America's military policies, but also its racial policies. An articulate speaker who commanded great physical presence (he was six feet, four inches and weighed nearly 250 pounds), he was an especially effective spokesman for the Air Force. In 1967 he was named commander of Wheelus AFB in Libya just as Colonel Khadafy succeeded in his revolution there. Khadafy demanded that the air base-which he saw as a vestige of European colonialism-be closed and its facilities turned over to the Libyan people. This obviously was an extremely delicate position for James requiring restraint, tact, diplomacy, and grit. He displayed an abundance of all these qualities, and upon leaving Wheelus a year later, he received his first star. After four years in the Pentagon working in Public Affairs where he won two more stars, he was named vicecommander of Military Airlift Command (MAC). After less than two years at MAC, he was given a fourth star-the first black in American history to attain that rank-and was named commander of the North American Air Defense (NORAD) Command. Surprisingly for a man of his size and appearance, James was in poor health. He suffered a heart attack in 1977 and soon after elected to retire. His health continued to decline and in February 1978, one month after retirement, he suffered another, fatal, heart attack.
There are two biographies of James. One by James R. McGovern is titled Black Eagle: General Daniel "Chappie" James, Jr. (University, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1985). McGovern portrays James as a patriotic, hardworking, articulate, and measured individual who served as a convincing spokesman for the black cause without becoming radicalized. James constantly stressed the qualities of determination and sincerity, arguing that performance, not skin color, was how a person should be judged. McGovern's approach is a balanced one. He notes the rumors that James avoided combat in Vietnam and that his rapid rise in rank was politically motivated. However, he shows convincingly that James was a morethancapable commander and that his performance in the difficult Libyan situation was outstanding. Clearly, James deserved his promotion to flag rank. Less satisfactory is McGovern's explanation for James's advancement from that point on. Granted, he was an effective and dynamic speaker who performed his duties in public affairs in an exemplary fashion, but those duties do not in themselves justify promotion to lieutenant general. Moreover, the decision to give James his fourth star-there are usually only about 12 full generals serving at a given time-was based on his performance as vicecommander of MAC. But McGovern dismisses this twoyear assignment with only a single sentence. Moreover, James's threeyear tenure as NORAD commander is scarcely addressed, earning barely one page. As a result, although the reader is left with a clear portrait of James's role as a civil rights pioneer, he is not provided an understanding of his performance as a senior commander.
The other biography of James is even less satisfactory: J. Alfred Phelps, Chappie: America's First Black FourStar General: The Life and Times of Daniel James, Jr. (Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1991). Phelps uses James as a symbol of integration, showing how blacks rose from their inferior status in the Second World War to acceptance three decades later. Unfortunately, this portrayal is marred by a tone both too strident and too glowing. For example, the author devotes several chapters to the racial problems faced by the Tuskegee airmen during the war, but admits James played almost no role in those events. Like the McGovern work, which Phelps borrows heavily from, there is inadequate explanation for James's mercurial rise in rank after 1969. Phelps asserts rather than demonstrates his competence and relies far too heavily on public relations speeches by James to illustrate his points. As a result, both these biographies leave the reader with more questions than they provide answers.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the US Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
Return: American Airpower Biography
Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor