olds-and-james

Note: since this article was first published, the producer has come forward on Facebook and taken responsibility for the mistakes detailed below. This is an admirable gesture, and much more than we have traditionally seen from Air Force publicists.

Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. is a towering figure of Air Force history. His journey from private pilot to ultimate Tuskegee Airman to 4-star operational boss blazed a trail of greatness as he simultaneously served as a pathfinder on the trail to equality. The man flew in combat in three wars. He built and trained the roster of one of the most effective combat squadrons in WWII history. He participated in one of the most storied and significant aerial combat operations of the Vietnam War. He commanded the US nuclear arsenal at the height of the Cold War. [Ed. Note: as a good friend and astute historian points out, Chappie’s command of NORAD in the 1970s did not constitute commanding the nuclear arsenal. His task at NORAD was defending US airspace. Operating nukes was the role of Strategic Air Command].

And yet, he was also renowned for his composure and grace amid a career that unfolded against a backdrop of upheaval. James was a living model of social progress and a symbol of the final end of authorized racial discrimination in the ranks, but he didn’t make a fuss about it. He wanted to be respected for his achievements in the air, and for his leadership. And in his time, he damn sure was, earning street cred as a fighter pilot also capable of playing staff and political roles as he rose through the ranks. Over time, James came to be regarded as a careful student of conflict, famously remarking that “nobody dislikes war more than warriors.”

Chappie James gave everything he had to the defense of his country, dying within weeks of his retirement from service.

Unfortunately for his legacy, he gets little attention from the official Air Force until African-American History Month, at which point he and others are rolled out as mascots for a social agenda clumsily pawed at by a big blue bureaucracy as inept and transparent as it is out of touch. Here’s a man who should be celebrated every month of the year for his countless achievements. For the way he innovated pilot training during WWII. For the tactics he pioneered in Korea. For the operations he commanded in Vietnam. For the Soviets he caused to piss themselves with anxiety when his hand was adjacent to the world’s biggest pickle button.

Instead, he gets celebrated so someone else can check a bureaucratic square. And when Air Force publicists conducts the bumbling annual show of force, they butcher it. Check out the video recently shared by Airman Magazine (the official publication of the Air Force) and see if you can spot the glaring error.

And there it is, at 40 seconds. The dumbest thing you’ll hear all day.

Operation Bolo did not occur in 1950, when the French were still fighting in what was then called Indochina. It occurred on January 2, 1967 in the skies over North Vietnam. That Airman Magazine could be remotely confused about this means the people working on this video didn’t have the faintest grasp of the subject matter. Which means they knew nothing Bolo and nothing of Chappie James. That’s an insult to him, to his memory, and to one of the most successful and consequential aerial operations of all time.

Editorial sloppiness is one thing. But getting a basic fact wrong in the middle of a tribute video is another. It’s a sore reminder that Chappie and his career don’t get enough attention from the Air Force until there is a public relations interest in talking about him. That’s a crying shame. 

It’s also a grim reminder that today’s Air Force has no bloody idea where it came from or what led it to be what it is today.

For the record, Chappie was 8 TFW Deputy Commander for Operations at the time of Bolo. His boss was Robin Olds, 8 TFW Commander and noted badass. The two men led separate formations in an aerial ambush designed to tempt MiG-21s off the deck to attack what they believed would be a bomber formation. Once they got close enough to realize they were up against much more maneuverable F-4s, it was theorized, it would be too late to avoid a fight. From Olds’ amazing memoir Fighter Pilot:

“It would be my responsibility to lead the first flight into the area, and we had to simulate a Thud feint all the way in. We planned to use the same tanker track, refueling altitude, ingress route, altitude, airspeed, and radio communications as were used daily by the Thud strike forces. Once the MiGs were lured up, they’d realize the trap and there would no longer be a need for the rest of the force to continue with any F-105 tactics.”

The result was seven splashed enemy fighters and the need for a wholesale Soviet revision of fighter tactics. The operation changed the course of Vietnam, the Cold War, and Soviet fighter development. Chappie James led a formation in this battle, and should be known for that. He should also be known by the reputation he earned with Olds, who was famously tough on his enemies but often even tougher on his friends. Olds had personally chosen James to lead combat operations for the 8th, and later wrote the following about his good friend:

“Everybody loved Chappie for his great personality, his glib talk, and the sheer ease with which he connected with the men.”

Air Force, please stop rolling this man out for display like a Tussaud’s wax statue one month every year and forgetting him the rest of the year. When doing this disservice to his shining legacy, please limit the injury by refraining from ham-handed historical gaffes that require a time machine and hallucinogenic mushrooms to make any sense.

When we talk about Chappie James, we should be talking about the trillions of dollars he cost the Soviets in developing new radar, propulsion, and avionics technologies to avoid recurrences of Operation Bolo. That’s distinct from “here’s a general who happened to be black.”

If you can’t get the basics right, go back to covering band performances.