Retired Air Force General Daniel (Chappie) James, 58, the only four-star black general in the American military, died yesterday at the Air Force Academy Hospital near Colorado Springs after suffering a heart attack.
Gen. James, who had retired Feb 1 rather than on May 1 as planned because of previous heart trouble, had traveled to Colorado Springs to address an American Trucking Association convention there.
His scheduled speech was to be part of what Defense Secretary Harold Brown, at Gen. James' retirement ceremony at the Pentagon on Jan. 26, called a "new phase" of the general's traditional "active behavior."
That active behavior included fighting for equal rights for blacks, serving in three wars, and making flag-waving speeches whenever he had a chance to do so.
"I fought in three wars and three more wouldn't be too many to defend my country," Gen. James wrote in his own hand on a painting of him standing in front of his F-4 Phantom fighter bomber in Ubon, Thailand. "I love America and as she has weaknesses or ills, I'll hold her hand." That inscribed portrait now hangs outside Air Force offices on the fourth floor of the Pentagon.
Gen. James' fight for equal rights started early in life, before it was popular. He grew up in Pensacola, Fla., in the 1920s when equal rights was still a distant dream. He went to segregated schools and sat in the back of the bus. But his mother -- who founded and ran the Little A. James School at 1606 N. Alcaniz St. because she felt the school set aside for "colored" was unacceptable -- ordered young Chappie never to give up on his dreams.
"My mother used to say: 'Don't stand there banging on the door of opportunity then when someone opens it, you say, wait a minute, I got to get my bags. You be prepared with your bags of knowledge, your patriotism, your honor, and when somebody opens that door, you charge in.'"
Gen. James, in another recollection of his Pensacola boyhood, once told a reporter that "as Bill Cosby says, we were poor, but we didn't know it. We worked hard. We were never on welfare, I'll tell you that."
Encouraged by his school teacher mother and hardworking father -- he pushed a coal dolly in the local gas plant -- Chappie, the youngest of 17 children, decided to prepare his "bags of knowledge" by going off to study at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
He figured at the time that to leap over the racial barrier he would have to go into the undertaking business.
But Gen. James' boyhood in Pensacola, site of a Navy flight training base where seaplanes skimmed over the Gulf of Mexico and fighters thundered off runways, had set off fires of desire in him for flying.
"I didn't want to go into the Navy, Gen. James once recalled, and end up as another black cook." So at Tuskegee he joined the campus branch of what was then called the Army Air Corps and later the U.S. Air Force. Air Corps flight training was segregated, with blacks flying their Piper Cubs in one pattern and white cadets in another. "It was a helluva traffic pattern," Gen. James, who was commissioned an officer in the summer of 1943, recalled.
These "Tuskegee airmen" found themselves segregated in separate black facilities wherever they were sent, despite the regulations against this. Gen. James and fellow black officers at Selfridge Air Force Base, Mich., decided to change things -- entering the officers' club that was then open only to whites. The club closed every time the blacks entered. The Air Command finally transferred the black officers to air bases in the South -- where Jim Crow held sway.
But Gen. James and fellow blacks did the same thing at Godman Field next to Fort Knox, Ky., and next at Freeman Field in Seymour, Ind. On April 5, 1945, the Army arrested 101 black airmen at Freeman Field and charged them with mutiny, treason and other offenses.
Although some who were arrested and earned their place on what was to become the "101" honor roll of protesting blacks could not recall Gen. James' making the list, he did spread the word of the arrests to the black press and official Washington. He was flying a C-47 courier plane from Fort Knox to Eastern cities at the time, carrying dispatches about the arrests along with official mail.
The Army put three of the 101 blacks on trial in 1945, but the charges were dropped. Gen. James stayed in the Army after World War II, stuck in the rank of first lieutenant for six years. He became Air Force Capt. James in Korea where he flew 101 combat missions in the conflict there.
His mother had once told him: "For you my son, there is an 11th commandment. Thou shalt not quit." And she added lots of other commandments for her son, including: "Prove to the world that you can compete on an equal basis."
Gen. James tried to follow both those commandments while flying fighters in Korea and later in Vietnam, advancing up to the rank of colonel in Vietnam where he led the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing.
This fighting black colonel who was four-square behind the Vietnam war did not escape the attention of Washinton officialdom, then under political siege, partly on charges that blacks were bearing a disproportionate share of the pain and death of that war. He won his first star in July 1970, and got former Defense secretary Melvin R. Laird as his enthusiastic sponsor.
Laird brought Gen. James to the Pentagon, where in 1970 he became deputy assistant secretary of Defense for public affairs. In that job, Gen. James traveled around the country as a spokesman for the administration's Vietnam war policy. He also sometimes conducted Pentagon briefings for newsmen, although that was not his forte.
He kept getting stars and choice command assignments from 1970 until SEpt. 1, 1975, when Gen. David C. Jones, Air Force chief of staff, pinned on Gen. James' fourth star. He was the first black to be so honored. He got his final command at that time: commander in chief, North American Air Defense Command/Aerospace Defense Command.
"This promotion is important to me," Gen. James said when he won his fourth star, "by the effect it will have on some kid on a hot sidewalk in some ghetto. If my making an advancement can serve as some kind of spark to some young black or other minority, it will be worth all the years, all the blood and sweat it took in getting here."
He acknowledged during one interview that some young blacks felt he had made it to the top by letting himself be used as a 6-foot-4 puppet of the white establishment -- an "oreo." But it angered him that some young blacks did not realize how far their fight for equal rights had advanced.
"Most of their obstacles," he said of the young blacks trying to refight battles Gen. James felt were already won, "are illusory. You can vote. You can go to any school you want to. Most of them are making a career out of being black.They don't know what suffering is."
Gen. James' strong feelings about the need for a strong national defense often impelled him to make strong statements. "I wear my patriotism like a badge," he once said. But both Gen. James and Air Force headquarters denied a Nov. 23, 1977, column by Rowland Evans and Robert Novak that Gen. James was relieved of command earlier because of a strong letter he had written to Air Force Chief of Staff Jones protesting a reorganization plan for the Aerospace Defense Command.
Gen. James and the Air Force both said the black four star general would retire in February rather than May strictly for health reasons.
At his farewell press conference at the Pentagon on Jan. 25, Gen. James said "absolutely not" when asked if his letter accelerated his retirement.
"If I could write the script for my life all over again, of how I wanted it to go, I don't know of anybody else who has been able to do precisely what he set out to do and what he wanted to do, and what he had the most fun doing and that he felt the most sense of accomplishment at having done, than I have.
"The Air Force is the greatest place in the world for me," Gen. James continued. "And if I had it to do all over again, I would do it exactly the same way."
He said he planned to settle in the
Washington area in his retirement years because "you are close enough in the world for me," Gen. James conto the arena to hear the screams of the Christians and the roar of the lions." But at the time of his death he and his family had not yet established a firm residence.
News of his death brought condolences and praise from highest ranking civilian and military officials yesterday. Defense Secretary Brown said he was speaking for President Carter as well as the Pentagon in expressing "deepest sympathy" to the James family. "Our nation has lost a fine officer and a fine man. Chappie fought for equal rights as he fought for his country, even when doing so was not popular. We are wiser, more tolerant and stronger because of Chappie."
Gen. James' military decorations include the Defense Department's Distinguished Service Medal; the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster; the Legion of Merit with one Oak Leaf Cluster; the Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf Clusters, and the Air Medal with 13 Oak Leaf Clusters.
He is survived by his wife, Dorothy Watkins James, two sons, Claude, of Rockville, and Daniel III, an Air Force captain; a daughter, Mrs. Frank W. Berry of Clark Air Force Base, in the Philippines, and three grandchildren.