IN 1943 WHEN Daniel "Chappie" James, fresh from college and eager to join the war effort, enrolled in the U.S. Army Air Corps, he was assigned to an all-black unit. That wasn't an unusual procedure then for either the Air Corps or the other armed services. In fact, it was the norm. The bitter irony of the American military fighting for democracy at home and abroad while itself being rigidly segregated wasn't officially recognized and remedied until after the war. Next month Chappie James retires from the Air Force, ending a 35-year military career. He retires as a four-star general whose last assignment was as commander of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD). As such, he was the only American military official with emergency authority to deploy nuclear weapons without presidential approval.

There are only 36 officers of four-star rank in the entire U.S. military, so Chappie James is the outstanding exception rather than the rule among both blacks and whites. But reviewing his career does bring into focus the changed climate blacks have found in the military during the last generations. To state it simply, blacks have become an acknowledged integral part of this country's fighting force. The level of achievement they can aspire to is no longer circumscribed by their race. They can be, not black soldiers, but soldiers period. A large measure of the credit for this progress must go to those black soldiers and airmen whose demonstrations against segregation in the armed forces during World War II forced the military to march down the right road on this matter.

Gen. James himself would be the last one to play racial politics in the military. His was a struggle to get in and gain an equal chance to prove his fitness. That he did, as an ace fighter pilot in Korea and Vietnam and in a variety of administrative posts. Some have found his old-fashioned patriotism and unshakeable faith in the American Dream grating, particularly during the latter part of the Vietnam War when he was the chief spokesman for the Pentagon. But, as Gen. James described himself, he is "above everything else . . . an American . . . a general and a warrior." In all three capacities, he has served his country well.