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Gala Marks “Chappie” James 100th Birthday

Jennie McKeon
WUWF Public Media

The Chappie James Museum is preparing to host its annual observance of the birthday of General Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. This year marks the anniversary of the 100th birthday of the Pensacola native, who became the nation’s first African-American four-star general.  

The local celebration honoring Gen. James is set for Feb. 9.

“It’s a very important occasion, not only for the museum, but for the city, the state and the nation, because he was one of our heroes,” said Ellis Jones, board president of the Chappie James Museum of Pensacola.

“This will be our fourth event,” Jones said. “We’ve had them on a yearly basis at different venues and in each instance we’ve had a larger attendance from the public. We expect this year’s event to include about 300-plus residents.”

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Ellis Jones, board president of the Chappie James Museum of Pensacola, stands next to the monument to James at the General Daniel "Chappie" James Jr Memorial Park on MLK Dr.

In fact, the response for this centennial birthday celebration has met those expectations. For now, the sale of tickets to the event at the Sanders Beach-Corinne Jones Resource Center has been paused while organizers work to increase the number of seats available.

According to Jones, some of the invitees include the son and grandkids of Gen. James. The guest speaker is Col. Roosevelt Lewis (USAF retired), who was an acquaintance of Gen. James and was a Tuskegee pilot.

“I attended ROTC at Tuskegee University,” said Col Lewis. “The Tuskegee Airmen were our original instructors and the Tuskegee Airmen raised me in the Air Force.”

Lewis says James exemplified the standard of excellence established by the famed African-American pilots of WWII. He adds that their common link was C. Alfred Anderson, the chief flight instructor of the Civilian Pilot Training Program at Tuskegee.

“Chief became Chappie’s best friend during that period of his life, a lifelong friend,” Lewis said. “And, of course, Chief Anderson introduced me to Chappie and Dottie, Dorothy Watkins James, when I was a young teenager, a freshman there at Tuskegee and chemistry major. And, Chief took me to fly and taught me to fly, just like he did Chappie.”

Col. Lewis recalled how James was deemed “overqualified” to join the original Tuskegee Airmen because of the flight hours he accumulated under Anderson. But, the “chief” was later able to bring him aboard as a civilian flight instructor for the program.

In the years to follow, Lewis says the exploits of James as a fighter pilot, in Korea and Vietnam, became legendary.

Credit US Air Force photo/Harry Tonemah
US Air Force photo/Harry Tonemah
Retired Air Force Col. Roosevelt Lewis, speaking at a Black History Month event at Sheppard AF Base.

“In Korea, he and his cronies actually developed tactics for what we call “air to mud,” protecting troops on the ground, interdiction,” he explained. “They did that very, very well in their unit and they were known for that.”

General James later flew 78 combat missions into North Vietnam, and teamed with renowned fighter pilot Robin Olds for the “Operation Bolo” MiG sweep, which resulted in the highest total kills of any air mission during the Vietnam War.

“Instead of the MiGs coming up to feast on the F-105 Thunderchiefs that were less agile, Chappie’s and Robin Olds’ flights of F-4’s, our top-of-the-line fighter, engaged them and knocked seven out of the sky that day, and of course, the Vietnamese never recovered in terms of an aerial threat to us,” Lewis said proudly.

In the mid-1970s, then-Capt. Lewis served under then-Lt. Gen. James, who had assumed duty as vice commander of the Military Airlift Command, headquartered at Scott Air Force Base, Ill.

Lewis saw James as a friend and mentor, and pointed to his success as the first African-American to earn four-star rank as an example of what he and others coming up behind him could achieve.

“He was an American patriot, who wore patriotism on his sleeve,” Lewis proclaimed. “He did not back away from that. And, of course, he taught us a love for this nation; and the fact that we serve this nation, we understood “service to nation, before self.”

It’s stories like these that Col. Lewis will be sharing at the 100th Birthday celebration for General Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr., whose youngest son Claude and other family members will be attending.

“Primarily, the funds will be going to the museum,” added Chappie James Museum Board President Ellis Jones.

The proceeds will expand community access to the cultural heritage site.

Credit Jennie McKeon / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
The historic Pensacola childhood home of General Daniel "Chappie" James Jr., the nation's first African-American to earn four-star rank.

“Right now the museum is operating on a part-time basis. We have volunteers and one staff person who works part time,” said Jones of the current situation. “Our eventual goal is accumulate enough funds to hire a full-time person and we ultimately want to be operating on a 5-day basis.”

Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. was born on Feb. 11, 1920. The fundraiser in honor of what would have been his 100th birthday is Feb. 9, 2 p.m. at the Sanders Beach-Corinne Jones Community Center.

Ticket prices start at $65 each.

For information about the additional tickets being made available, stop by the museum, Thursday – Saturday, between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., call the museum office at 850-542-4721.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.