ARLINGTON, Va. – The recent death of Air Force Lt. Gen. Daniel James III, a command pilot and combat veteran who would later become the adjutant general (TAG) for the Texas National Guard and ascend to the top position of the Air National Guard as its director, triggered a wave of fond remembrances by those who served with him. James, 71, died Aug. 1.
"He was loved by his squadron mates – from the youngest enlisted person behind a duty desk to crew chiefs and fellow pilots," said Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, who served with James at the Texas Air Guard's 149th Fighter Wing, in a memo to state TAGs announcing James' passing. "Danny always had a smile, a joke, or a question about how you were doing. I'm glad I knew him."
A stream of tributes poured into numerous social media sites after James' death. Words, phrases and statements such as "trailblazer," "greatest friend of the enlisted force," "patriot," "a gift to the National Guard" and "he knew us on a personal level" were just some of the sentiments shared from those who knew him.
James was the son of Daniel "Chappie" James Jr., a fighter pilot who was the first African-American Air Force general to pin on four stars.
"Knowing him, I can tell you he did not hang his hat on that legacy," said Lengyel. "He was his own man who influenced many young fighter pilots."
Born Sept. 7, 1945, in Tuskegee, Alabama, the prominent home of American aviation history that trained black military student-pilots, James said he knew from a very early age that his place was in the skies.
"I became enamored with the idea of flying," he said in a March 2006 interview with National Guard Bureau historians, adding that becoming a pilot gave him focus during his formidable years.
Graduating from the University of Arizona's Air Force ROTC program in 1968, James continued to follow in his father's footsteps, ultimately earning his wings, and logging 500 combat hours as a forward air controller and F-4 Phantom aircraft commander. He would complete two active-duty tours in Southwest Asia, earning two Distinguished Flying Crosses.
Attached to Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, in the mid-1970s, James would come across Air Guard pilots during air combat exercises.
"I saw these guys who were airline pilots and fighter pilots with the Guard," he said, "and I thought, ‘Well, this is the best of both worlds.'"
"But I always wanted to stay affiliated with the Air Force," James added. "So the [Air] Guard was a natural for me, and I spent 38 years of my life wearing that [flight] suit, either as a part-timer or full-timer."
Eventually, he would return to full-time status. In November 1995, James was selected to lead the Texas National Guard. The "command authority" he had as the state's top officer, he recalled, allowed him to inspire quality changes throughout the ranks.
"The best thing you could do was get the involvement of people from different rank structures, (to include) civilian employees and state employees, so you have a group that is inclusive," he explained.
By June 2002, then-President George W. Bush nominated James as the 11th director of the Air National Guard. He oversaw the Air Guard as it went from a strategic reserve to an operational force after 9/11, highlighted by dominating combat air support in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But it was the largest natural disaster in U.S. history, James said, that cemented the Air Guard's claim as the nation's first choice for homeland security.
"When [Hurricane] Katrina hit, we needed to get supplies and people into those areas where communications were down, air traffic control was sparse, runways were flooded, and debris was on taxiways," James said. "That's probably one of the proudest moments in the Air National Guard as I see it. It was absolutely awesome."
James' military career would come to a close in May 2006.
At his farewell ceremony, his fellow officers purchased a recliner for him as a symbolic nod to a well-deserved retirement. But they added it probably wouldn't get much use because of James' "hard-charging personality."
"When I think about the Guard culture, it's the volunteer and militia spirit that says, "Put me in,'" James said. "It's a very positive culture, steeped in history, constitutionally based, and reenacted on a daily basis by our Citizen-Warriors."