The people who knew Daniel (Chappie) James --and a lot of people who only knew about him -- began to pay their respects yesterday long before the funeral mass for the first black to become a four-star general in the armed forces of the United States.

They came into the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception from the chill dusk and walked past his flagdraped casket with the five bayonet-rigged Air Force guards around it.

Then they would sit in the church for a few minutes, perhaps, and kneel and pray, and then go their separate ways, having taken part in what one of them described as "a time when history is being made."

Gen. James died at the Air Force Academy Hospital near Colorado Springs last Saturday after a heart attack. He was 58.

Vice President Mondale represented President Carter at the mass, which was offered by Maj. Gen. Henry J. Meade, Air Force chief of chaplains. The mass was scheduled for 8 p.m. but many of those who walked past Gen. James' coffin arrived before 5 p.m.

One of them was Joseph Fenrick, 38, a Defense Department employee who remembered Gen. James from the time that Fenrick was an ROTC student at Howard University in the late 1950s.

"He was big, vibrant, dynamic, and an inspiration," said Fenrick. "He was a leader."

Another was Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), himself a retired general in the Air Force Reserve. Goldwater saluted as he approached Gen. James' coffin.

"He was one of my oldest military friends," Goldwater said. "He got where he was because he was a fine man and a fine airman. We'll not replace him in a hurry."

Still another was Helen Powell, 59, who spent part of World War II working as a spot welder in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York.

"I tell the children to look up and you can be somebody," she said. "I think Gen. James was a great man. He's something for the children to look up to."