Why Air Force Legend 'Chappie' James Almost Shot Moammar Gadhafi

Daniel "Chappie" James with his McDonnell Douglas F-4C Phantom at Ubon Air Base, Thailand. (Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum)

Daniel "Chappie" James Jr. was a lot of things over the course of his life: Tuskegee airman, Korean War fighter ace, the first Black four-star general in the U.S. armed forces -- and the man who almost shot and killed Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

In 1969, after years training Black pilots during World War II and flying hundreds of combat missions over Korea and Vietnam, James was sent to Wheelus Air Base in Libya to command a fighter training wing.

Libya had been busy after World War II. After securing its independence from Italy, the country became a constitutional monarchy. Once its massive oil reserves were discovered, the once-poor nation began to flourish with its newfound wealth -- most of which went to King Idris I.

Wheelus Air Base was a former Italian and Nazi air base established during the war as an Allied base of operations in North Africa. It soon became the largest American military base outside of the United States. At its height, roughly 15,000 troops were stationed there. It was a significant base for the Military Air Transport Service and the Air Force's Strategic Air Command.

Relations between Libya and the U.S. were warm and healthy under King Idris, but discontent was brewing among the king's senior government leadership, especially with one ambitious officer, Col. Moammar Gadhafi. On Sept. 1, 1969, Gadhafi and his Free Officers Movement overthrew the king while he was on vacation in Turkey.

Anti-Western riots erupted throughout the country. Gadhafi expelled Libya's 12,000-strong Italian community and established the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, a "republic" with him holding most of the government's authority. About 4,000 Americans were still stationed at Wheelus Air Base at the time.

Before Gadhafi's coup, the United States had made a deal to withdraw from the base and turn it over to the Libyan government. Operations continued normally, as did the withdrawal agreement, even after the coup.

But Gadhafi wanted to take the Americans for everything they were worth, push them out of Libya faster than planned and force them to leave valuable materials and equipment behind, according to a story in Air Force Magazine.

That's how he ended up in a staring contest with James.

The soon-to-be dictator harassed the Americans by driving a column of half-tracks through Wheelus' base housing area at full speed. When James learned about what the colonel was doing, he shut the base gate down to prevent more havoc. Then, he walked to the barrier to meet Gadhafi.

Like something out of an old western, the Libyan strongman and the Air Force legend stared at each other across a patch of desert, pistols strapped to their hips, just waiting for the other to draw.

Gadhafi was a thin six feet tall, not a small man, but was dwarfed by James' 6-foot-5 athletic frame. As they began to speak, Gadhafi's hand started to move toward the grip of the "fancy" pistol strapped to his hip. James told him to move his hand away.

Daniel "Chappie" James Jr. as an F-4 pilot during the Vietnam War. (U.S. Air Force)

"If he had pulled that gun, he never would have cleared his holster," James said.

Gadhafi wisely backed down and removed the half-tracks, leaving James and the Air Force to complete the orderly withdrawal of American personnel and materiel from Libya. He went on to rule Libya until 2011, leaving behind a legacy of mismanagement and funding for international terrorism that has left the country in disarray in the years after his bizarre death at the hands of Libyan rebels.

James went on to command Military Airlift Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command and act as an adviser to Defense Secretary Harold Brown and President Jimmy Carter. He retired from the Air Force in 1978, one of the service's most storied alums.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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