Thursday, March 3, 2011

FMT 4 --Chappie James at the Gate (I know, it's March; so sue me)

I had a tough week so I am posting the last February Mystery Tour a little late.  This last mystery is about history; Black History to be precise.  February is Black History Month, and, like the Equal Opportunity Program, is a source of controversy and more-than-a-little-shame, mostly because it became necessary to legislate it.  During February we see newspaper articles, TV messages, school emphasis and special events that hi-lite achievements by African-Americans that were often overlooked by history texts.  These things sometimes have a forced feel to them, probably because they are an afterthought to centuries of deliberate absence from mainstream culture.

People of my generation all heard of George Washington Carver in school, but that's about it for black notables.  Perhaps his agricultural contributions were too monumental to omit; but it seems just as likely that text authors felt they had "filled that square" by including him.  The mystery to me is why our culture hasn't caught up to the reality.  When, if ever, will it not be necessary to isolate and commemorate the contributions of any specific real or imagined division of humanity?

Well, enough intro--the real reason I wrote this entry was to tell one of my absolute favorite "war" stories, (and it's a timely one, too!) about General Daniel "Chappie" James Jr.  Gen James was the first African-American Four-Star General.  A Tuskegee Airman, a veteran fighter pilot of WWII, Korea and Viet Nam, his intelligence, wit and charm were accompanied by singular dedication to duty.  He was an inspiring public speaker, and it would surprise most that he spoke eloquently about Americanism and patriotism--particularly considering the obstacles he had to overcome.  If you want to know what his experience must have been like, look at Gen Colin Powell's book "My American Journey."  Powell came along years later than Gen James, and the racism he experienced in a much more modern world is still heartbreaking and maddening.

Ok, the story.  During WWII, the U.S. took over a Nazi air base in Libya near Tripoli.  Named Wheelus AB, it held many different air units over the years, and in August 1969, the Wing Commander was Chappie James.   Just one month after Gen James took command of the base, Libya's King Idris I was overthrown in a military coup led by, you got it, Col Moammar Qaddafi. Since Idris was a friend of the U.S., you can imagine that the coup gathered steam by vilifying America.  In short order, Qaddafi decided to flex his new muscles by personally parading vehicles through Wheelus Base Housing.  What follows is, I believe, the story of what happened in Gen James' own words:

“One day Khadafy ran a column of half tracks through my base—right through the housing area at full speed. I shut the barrier down at the gate and met Khadafy a few yards outside it. He had a fancy gun and a holster and kept his hand on it. I had my .45 in my belt. I told him to move his hand away. If he had pulled that gun, he never would have cleared his holster. They never sent any more half tracks.”

Apparently Qaddafi demanded the U.S. turn over all the facilities (and probably all aircraft and equipment) to him immediately.  Gen James stared him down, and Qaddafi blinked.  The U.S later abandoned the base in its own time, and in orderly fashion, in June 1970.

Years later, we returned to the former Wheelus AB and bombed the daylights out of it during Operation Eldorado Canyon.  For years Qadaffi's regime had been a vocal supporter of every terrorist group from the Red Army Faction to the Irish Republican Army, calling their attacks on all targets, including civilian, "heroic acts." Our operation was in retaliation for a terrorist attack on a German discotheque frequented by American servicemen, linked directly to Libyan agents.

Gen Daniel "Chappie" James suffered a heart attack and died 3 weeks after he retired from Air Force, at the age of 58.  An American original.