Daniel James Jr.

Daniel James Jr. Was born on February 11, 1920, in Pensacola, Florida. His parents were Daniel and Lily Anna James. His father, Daniel, worked for the Pensacola city gas company and his mother, Lily Anna, was a high school teacher who established a private school for African American children in Pensacola.[1]

Daniel James Jr. attended Tuskegee University, where he graduated in 1942 with a bachelor of science degree in physical education.[2]

On January 18, 1943, James enlisted in the aviation cadet program of the United States Army Air Force. He would receive a commission as a second lieutenant along with his pilot wings at Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama on July 28, 1943.[3]

James trained pilots for the all-black 99th Pursuit Squadron throughout the war. He also served as a B-52 pilot with the 617th Bomber Squad of the 477th Bomb Group. Although he did not see combat until the Korean War, he played an integral part in World War II.

Daniel James was arrested as a part of the Freeman Field Mutiny in 1945.[4] During this incident, African American members of the 477th Bombardment Group attempted to integrate an all-white officers club. This ‘mutiny’ resulted in one hundred and sixty-two arrests of black officers, some of them being arrested twice. Three members were Court marshaled, and one was convicted. It wasn’t until 1995 that the Air Force officially vindicated the actions of these African American officers. Some historians consider the Freeman Field Mutiny to be an essential step toward full integration of the armed forces and a model for later efforts to integrate public facilities through civil disobedience.

In September 1949, during the Korean War, James went to the Philippines as a flight leader for the 12th Fighter Bomber Squadron, 18th Fighter Wing. In 1950, he left for Korea, where he flew one hundred and one combat missions. After the war, he returned to the United States and became an all-weather jet fighter pilot with the 58th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron. He later became an operations officer, and in April 1953, he became commander of the 437th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron. He became the commander of the 60th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron in August 1955. He was then assigned to the headquarters of the US Air Force as a staff officer in the Air Defense Division of the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations.

During the Vietnam War, James went to Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand, where, in December 1966, he became Deputy Commander of Operations. In June of the following year, he was named Vice Commander under Colonel Robin Olds; the two were nicknamed “Blackman and Robin.” James flew seventy-eight combat missions in Vietnam and led a flight in “Operation Bolo.”

After Vietnam, James remained in the Air Force. He was named Vice Commander of the 33rd TFW at Elgin Air Force Base in Florida in December 1967. Not long after, he was transferred to Wheelan Air Base in the Libyan Arab Republic as commander of the 7272nd Fighter Training Wing. While there, there was a coup engineered by radical Libyan officers, and James had a standoff with the militants in the late stages of the coup. During the coup, James came face to face with Mohammar Gaddafi, who arrived at Air Force Base and spoke to him. James would later say that, while talking, Gaddafi moved his hand over to his pistol holder, to which James said: “I told him to move his hand away. If he had pulled that gun, his hand would never have cleared the holster.”[5]

After the coup, in March 1970, James was promoted to Brigadier General and became Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense. He played a crucial role in rejecting the accuracy of a list of prisoners of war supplied by North Vietnam. His rejection of that list helped bolster the politically explosive myth that the communist or deliberately holding prisoners as hostages.[6]

In April 1973, James was designated Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, and on September 1, 1974, he was made Vice Commander of the Military Airlift Command and became a Lieutenant General.[7]

On September 1, 1975, James was promoted to the rank of a four-star general (O-10). He became the highest-ranking African American in the history of the United States military to that day. He became the commander-in-chief of NORAD/ADCOM.[8]

Daniel James retired from the Air Force on February 1, 1978. Later that month, on February 25, he passed away from a heart attack. He was buried in Arlington Cemetery.


[1] U.S. Census, 1930, enumerator district 17-23, supervisor’s district 1, sheet 5B
[2] Joseph E. Treaster, “Daniel James, First Black to Be a Full General, Dies; Arrested for Sit-In Statement of Brown,” The New York Times, February 26, 1978.
[3] Victor Tolly, “Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. (1920-1978),” BlackPast.org, (24 November 2007).
[4] Bill Kaczor, “‘Chappie’ James Was Headed for Politics, Author Says The Sumter Daily Item,” Associated Press, December 21, 2012, 11B.
[5] Peter Grier, “The Chappie James Way,” Air Force Magazine: (October–November 2018), 70–73.
[6] Michael J. Allen, Until the Last Man Comes Home : POWs, MIAs, and the Unending Vietnam War (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 92.
[7] Victor Tolly, “Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. (1920-1978).”
[8] Gerald Astor, The Right to Fight: A History of African Americans in The Military (Boston, MA: Da Capo Press, 1998), 440-443.

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