Daniel James was born in Pensacola, Florida, in February 1920 as the last of 17 children. He attended the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1937. He earned a degree in physical education and a pilot’s license as part of the government-sponsored Civilian Pilot Training Program. James stayed in Tuskegee as a civilian pilot instructor until 1943, when he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. After completing training at Selfridge Field, Michigan, he graduated first in his class and returned to Tuskegee to serve as an instructor. Near the end of the war, James participated in the Freeman Field Mutiny, which increased pressure on the military to fully integrate its forces.
Following World War II, James deployed to Clark Air Base in the Philippines as part of the 18th Fighter Wing. The 18th saw extensive combat during the Korean War, and James flew 101 combat missions over Korea. Despite taking part in some of the Korean War’s most dangerous aerial battles, James coolly reflected on his time in Korea in an interview.
“I never had time to think about getting killed. There was too much to do.”
In 1951, he transferred and served in multiple roles across the United States and Europe. James’s leadership and perseverance earned him numerous promotions, and by the start of the Vietnam War, James was the deputy commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing.
During the Vietnam War, James worked closely with Robin Olds, one of the Air Force’s best fighter pilots. Olds and James became a highly effective team. They planned and executed some of the Air Force’s most successful operations of the war. Upon completing 78 combat missions in Vietnam, James returned home to become vice commander of Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
After several stints as a staff officer, James went to Wheelus Air Base in Libya to oversee the American withdraw following the Libyan Revolution. During the evacuation, he confronted Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and convinced him to allow the Americans to withdraw peacefully.
Following his success in Libya, James promoted to brigadier general and became the deputy assistant secretary of defense. On Sept. 1, 1975, he promoted to the rank of four-star general, becoming the first African American to attain the rank. James retired from the military in 1978. He died shortly after retiring.
We honor his service.
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Fact checker: Carl Wesseln