On His 100th Birthday, ‘Chappie’ James’ Legacy Lives On

Feb 11, 2020

Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Jr was born in Pensacola, on February 11, 1920, one-hundred years ago today. Capping an extraordinary military career, James became the first African-American to reach the rank of four-star general. In observance of Black History Month and in honor of the anniversary of  James' 100th birthday, WUWF looks at his remarkable life and legacy.

Daniel James Jr. was the youngest of 17 children born to Lillie (Brown) and Daniel James Sr.

It was at an early age that he got the nickname “Chappie,” inheriting it from his older brother Charles.

“Charles James went ahead of dad in football and all of that stuff, and when dad showed up, that crowd started calling dad, ‘Little Chappie,’” said James’ youngest son, Claude. But, things changed when his dad grew to 6-feet-4-inches and began to develop his own reputation.

“So, it was just “Chappie” James from then on; Daniel James Jr., but it was “Chappie” that was the nickname.”

“Chappie had wanted to be a pilot from the time he was a little kid,” said retired Air Force Colonel Roosevelt Lewis, a fellow aviator and Tuskegee graduate. “When he would look up in the skies over Pensacola, he would see the airplanes and that’s what he wanted to do. He wanted wings of Gold.”

Lewis says it was at Tuskegee that his friend and mentor learned to fly, and at the age of 19 became an instructor pilot for the nation’s first African-American military pilots.

Historic photo of Daniel "Chappie" James Jr. (center) during his days with the famed Tuskegee Airmen.

“He taught many of the airmen over the years who went on to become household names as Tuskegee Airmen,” Lewis added.

Eventually, Chappie James would join the group. At the height of his illustrious career, years later, he would reflect on those early days.

“It was in 1943 that I completed flight training at Tuskegee Institute, Alabama,” said Gen. James in what appears to be an old Department of Defense video. “We’ve come a long way since then.  In the early days at Tuskegee, in addition to the already difficult job of flying, we trained under the additional pressures of segregation. But, we had no time for self-pity or despair. We were too busy preparing ourselves for a career of service to our nation.”

Chappie’s exploits as a fighter pilot became legendary. During the Korean War, he flew over 100 combat missions. He tallied 78 more in Vietnam, most notably “Operation Bolo" MiG Sweep, which resulted in the highest total kill of any mission during the Vietnam War. 

Claude recalls how his dad, Robin Olds, and company, used a bit of deception, by flying patterns familiar to the older, less agile F-105 Thunderchief, when they were really flying the new top-of-the line F-4 Phantom.

Gen. Daniel "Chappie" James Jr.'s exploits as a fighter pilot are legendary.
Credit U.S. Air Force

“They mocked it to the point where the enemy didn’t know,” said Claude James of the successful tactical strategy. “The enemy comes up out of the clouds and they shot down at least 7; my big brother (Daniel III) told me it was more like 11 or 12 of the best planes the North Vietnamese had in one attack, one mission.”

After Vietnam, in late 1967, James had a brief stint as vice commander of the 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base. Then, he was sent to Wheelus Air Force Base in Libya, an assignment that set up his famous standoff with Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy. James' military biography is available on the U.S. Air Force website.

Early in his career, Chappie met and married Dorothy Watkins and they had three children, Danise and Daniel III, who’ve both passed on, and Claude, now 66. Following in his dad's footsteps, Daniel James III rose to the rank of three-star general in the Air Force. Claude is an Army veteran, who became a surgical technician.

On the occasion of his dad’s 100th birthday, Claude says he’ll be thinking about his father’s contemporary, 100-year-old Tuskegee Airman Charles McGee, one of the last surviving members of the legendary fighter pilots from WWII. The retired Lt. Col., recently given an honorary promotion to brigadier general, was honored during Super Bowl LIV.

Amid the observances celebrating his father, Chappie, he’s also recalling some of those special childhood memories, such as going to the flight line, when his dad was stationed in England.

“And, we’d drive right up by the plane, as it’s warming up,” says Claude, using sound affects to describe the noise of the jet. “And, the blast as it starts to turn shakes the car.”

Additionally, he remembers the military guard, standing at attention, wearing a rain slicker, armed with a rifle and a guard dog, protecting the plane. As the aircraft pulled off, Claude remembers a wave from his dad, who was saluted by the guard. Then he recalls the roar of the jet as it taxied away and disappeared into the clouds.

Gen. Daniel "Chappie" James Jr.'s wife, son, Daniel III, and wife, Dorothy take part in the 1976 pinning ceremony when he received his fourth star.
Credit National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

“Yeah, it was a special life, being one of those kids.”

Claude credited his father’s success to the educational start he and other black kids in the Pensacola neighborhood got at his mother Lillie’s school.

“She took it on herself to get them ready, all the way up into high school, to where they could handle it and they could achieve more,” Claude James said. “And, a lot of those kids went to college and a lot of them reached a lot of heights that they wouldn’t have even got a chance to do because they had a good start. And, dad was one of those; he was the youngest of the family.”

Just months before his death on Feb. 25, 1978, Gen. James spoke about lessons learned from his mother in an interview on the PBS show Tony Brown’s Journal.

“Another quote from my mother, she said, ‘Don’t stand there banging on that door of opportunity, yelling let me in, let me in, let me.’ And, all of a sudden somebody snatches open the door and you say, ‘Wait a minute, I got to go get my bags,” explained the general.  “She said, ‘You stand there armed with your bags of knowledge, your bags of understanding and your bags of desire and when they crack that door, step in and take charge.’ Well, you can do that now, but you got to prepare yourself first."

In July 1970, Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. was prepared when he was promoted to brigadier general.

“But, the biggest thing was just that fourth one. He was the first one ever to get the fourth star,” Claude proclaimed

James became the first African-American to attain the rank of four-star general in 1976, showing what could be done with hard work.

“When he got to the tops of what he could possibly do, and it was that, of course, a huge amount of pride; and in the whole city. Claude remembered running into people that said, ‘You know, I never met him, but when I found out he did that, it made me feel like I could...”

The city appreciated him then, and the James family is happy to see this renewed appreciation for Chappie in his hometown.

This is a rendering of a proposed memorial to Gen. Daniel "Chappie" James Jr. Legislation to name the new Pensacola Bay Bridge in his honor passed committee stops in the Florida Legislature Monday.
Credit Photo courtesy of the Gen. Daniel "Chappie" James Jr. Memorial Foundation

The Chappie James Museum and Flight Academy is located at the site of his childhood home and mother’s school on MLK Drive. After overwhelming community support to a recommendation by members of the Gen. Daniel "Chappie" James Jr Memorial Foundation and with backing in the state legislature, it appears the new Pensacola Bay Bridge will be named in his honor. Bills in the house and senate passed a couple of committee stops on Monday. 

In conjunction with the bridge naming, plans are moving forward for a Memorial Park landing to include a statue of the general and his F-4 aircraft.

Claude James believes his father is worthy, “Korean War, 101 times he got into an airplane, risking dying a horrible, fiery death, 101 times to fight for his country.”

Chappie did it again 78 more times in Vietnam. His youngest son quoted a famous saying.

“A warrior dies two deaths, one is the physical death and other is when his name is no longer mentioned. And, it’s on me because I’m the last of his children to push that as far as I can before I’m gone,” declared James.

Now retired, he’s already grooming his kids, Ryan and Britt to take over. In the meantime, “I’m enjoying coming back to Pensacola and doing what I can to keep his name alive in the town he loved.”

In honor of his 100th birthday, the Chappie James Museum Foundation held its annual fundraiser Sunday at the Sanders Beach-Corrine Jones Community Center. On Saturday, the Air Force Armament Museum at Eglin Air Force Base hosted a program in his honor. And, on Monday, the City of Pensacola has proclaimed today, Feb. 11, 2020 as Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Jr Day.

Gen. James is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.