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Pensacola Bay Bridge officially dedicated to Chappie James

Bob Barrett
WUWF Public Media

The Pensacola Bay Bridge officially got its new name at a ceremony on Wednesday morning.

Under a threatening, cloudy sky a crowd of about four dozen officials, veterans, and media gathered on the Pensacola landing point of the bridge.

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“This morning we are celebrating a great hometown hero,Daniel ‘Chappie’ James Jr. by officially naming the bridge for him, and by breaking ground for the Chappie James Memorial Plaza,” said Lee Hansen, a retired US Navy Captain and one of the board of directors of the memorial foundation.

The plaza will sit on the Pensacola side of the bridge, across the parking lot from the visitor information center. It will feature a 10 foot tall statue of General James.

“General Daniel ‘Chappie’ James Jr. was the 17th of 17 children born to Lilianna and Daniel James," said Hansen. “He grew up on what is now Martin Luther King Drive, in the house that is now the Chappie James Museum. Although he dreamed of flying from a very early age, he was told ‘there are no black pilots.' And yet he became one, a really, really great one. His mom, a schoolteacher, had an 11th commandment. She used to say ‘thou shalt not quit.' He lived by that commandment, it served him well.”

RELATED: On his 100th birthday, ‘Chappie’ James’ legacy lives on

Daniel ‘Chappie’ James enlisted in the Army’s Air Force in 1943, and trained pilots for the all-Black 99th Pursuit Squadron for the remainder of World War II. He flew combat missions in the Korean and Vietnam Wars and in 1975, was promoted to the rank of four-star general, becoming the highest ranking African-American in the history of the United States military to that date. He retired in early 1978, due to health issues and died less than a month later.

“Years later, as he was being memorialized, President Regan remarked ‘He had four stars on his shoulder, but 50 stars in his heart,’” recallled Hansen.

While the ceremony honored General James, it also dedicated the newly-completed Three Mile Bridge.

“You know 93 years ago if you were standing here you were waiting for a ferry to take you to Gulf Breeze,” said Senator Doug Broxson, who helped guide the bridge construction project through the legislature and submitted the legislation that named the new bridge in humor of Chappie James. “Ninety-two years later, after 10 years of developing and discussing and building and hurricanes, we’re here to celebrate an incredible monument to this area.”

Bob Barrett
WUWF Public Media

Former Florida Senate President Don Gaetz spoke to the crowd, telling stories about the struggle to find funding for the bridge project.

“The initial proposal was that this would be a toll bridge,” said Gaetz. “We had a state representative in the delegation at that time, Clay Ingram, and Clay said in public that he would light himself on fire on the bridge before he would allow it to be a toll bridge. And I didn’t want to lose Clay that way. And I figured that the spectacle of Clay lighted on fire on the bridge would probably not be good for tourism.”

“So, we went to work to try and find the money and we had to shove and push and maybe put an elbow or two into the game and do some things that will take the statute of limitations to run out before we can tell the whole story. But we found $800 million to build this bridge and make it toll-free.”

Among the guests at this groundbreaking ceremony was Jamie Berry, granddaughter of Chappie James.

“My grandfather encountered many bridges in his life,” said Berry. “As I think of the statue that will be here in the memorial plaza, it will show him looking over his beloved city of Pensacola and all of the Americans that he fought so hard to protect. It makes me proud to know that’s going to be a 10-foot tall statue.”

Along with the statue of the general, the Chappie James Memorial Plaza will also include a full size F-4 Phantom Jet. There is no estimate on when the plaza will be complete.

Bob Barrett has been a radio broadcaster since the mid 1970s and has worked at stations from northern New York to south Florida and, oddly, has been able to make a living that way. He began work in public radio in 2001. Over the years he has produced nationally syndicated programs such as The Environment Show and The Health Show for Northeast Public Radio's National Productions.