Realizing, perhaps, that at 6’4″ and 230 pounds he was too big to be ridden out of anywhere on a rail, the Air Force has always assigned Lt. Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. to the toughest possible duty. During the darkest days of the Vietnam war he was sent to colleges to talk with protesting students. “In the very first week I got hit with snowballs,” James remembers. “Later I got spit on.” The week after the 1970 Kent State shootings, he spoke to a hostile throng at the University of Florida, and one bearded white youth shouted, “How can a black man like you defend the racist, fascist establishment?” “Look, friend,” snapped James, his eyes flashing, “I’ve been black 50 years, which is more than you will ever be, and I know what I believe in.”
Partly because of those all-American beliefs, General James, now 55, has just been named by President Ford to become the first black four-star general in U.S. history—and been given another challenging assignment. He will become chief of the North American Air Defense Command, headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colo. NORAD has overall responsibility for the Defense Early Warning system, which protects the U.S. and Canada against air and rocket attack.
His late mother, Lillie Anna James, might swoon with pride. When he was a child she objected to the segregated schools in his native Pensacola, Fla. and decided to start a school of her own. “She charged a nickel-a-day tuition and eventually had about 120 pupils,” he recalls. “My father had to build the classrooms.” The 17th of 17 children, James was a star athlete in high school, and later at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute. His happiest moments, though, were spent doing odd jobs at a Pensacola airfield. “I was only 12 when I started,” says James. “I didn’t want money. I wanted plane rides and flying lessons.”
After joining the Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet in 1943, James got his first taste of combat as a Korean war jet pilot. He flew 101 missions and was once shot down over enemy territory. “Damned if some U.S. Marines didn’t come and get me in a tank,” he recalls. “I rode back to the base and figured my day wasn’t over, so I took another Mustang up that night.” Years later in Vietnam James flew 78 missions as vice-commander of a crack fighter unit under the command of famed Col. Robin Olds. For their exploits together, they earned the sobriquet of Black Man and Robin.
James’s most ticklish assignment after Vietnam was as commander of Wheelus Air Force Base in Libya, since abandoned, where he jousted cautiously but decisively with Libyan strong man, Col. Maummar Gaddafi. “He was a madman,” says James. “He surrounded the base with half-tracks and howitzers just to scare us. I let him know we had F-84s.”
Though James was once considered something of a radical—he was arrested briefly for taking part in a 1945 sit-in to integrate facilities at Johnson Field in Indiana—his unabashed happy warrior boosterism helped propel him to four stars. Representing, in his blackness and his outspoken patriotism, a contradiction to so many stereotypes, he was brought to the Pentagon in 1970 to do battle on the field of public relations. In 1973 he was chosen as the first black to keynote the annual convention of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the same DAR that had once refused to allow black soprano Marian Anderson to sing in their Washington Constitution Hall.
The military has become a James family vocation. One son, Daniel III, 27, is an Air Force captain; the other, Claude, 20, is an Army enlisted man, and his daughter, Danice, 30, is married to an Air Force flight surgeon.
“I’m very proud,” says James of his promotion, “and I think about my mother a lot. She always told me to develop powers of excellence and to vault to the top. If you carp and complain, you stay at the bottom.” His experience, he believes, speaks well too for his country. “I used to dream about this,” he says. “But in those days I always woke up.”