When the new $427 million Pensacola Bay Bridge opens in 2021, it’s all but certain that it will carry the name of Air Force Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James, who grew up in Pensacola before embarking on his noteworthy military career, which included becoming the Air Force’s first African-American four-star general in 1975.
Also during his distinguished career, James was a flight instructor with the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black pilots in what was then the U.S. Army Air Forces. He earned three Distinguished Flying Crosses, one for actions during the Korean War and two more for actions during the Vietnam War. He flew 101 combat missions in Korea and 78 combat missions in Vietnam.
And, in another notable connection to Northwest Florida in addition to his upbringing in Pensacola, James’s Air Force career included a stint as vice commander of what was then Eglin Air Force Base’s 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing, a predecessor of today’s 33rd Fighter Wing. During his time at Eglin, from December 1967 to August 1969, James was named Florida’s Outstanding American of the Year for 1969 by the Florida State Jaycees.
James died of a heart attack on Feb. 25, 1978, just a few weeks after his retirement from the Air Force. He is interred at Arlington National Cemetery.
Earlier this month, a bridge-naming committee appointed by the Escambia County Commission and the Gulf Breeze City Council — the city of Gulf Breeze includes the south side of the bridge — recommended that the bridge be named for James, as the “Gen. Daniel ‘Chappie’ James Memorial Bridge.”
The committee recommended the name after hosting a couple of public forums and seeking public input on a name for the structure, which will replace the bridge that opened in 1960 and was widened in 1987 to include shoulders. The new bridge will be the third bridge to span the bay; the first bridge was a two-lane drawbridge that opened in 1931.
Various iterations of James’ name were the overwhelming favorite of the more than 800 people who submitted suggested names for the bridge. Naming the bridge for James was the choice in 359 submissions. Other submissions included dozens of suggestions to continue to honor the late state Sen. Phillip D. Beall Jr., for whom the bridge is currently named. There were other suggestions to name the bridge to honor the Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy’s precision demonstration flight team, based at Naval Air Station Pensacola, or for names that would reference the area’s popularity as a vacation destination.
Officials in Pensacola are supportive of the proposal to name the bridge in honor of James, and on the strength the committee recommendation and other clear support, state Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, has submitted legislation to the Florida Legislature seeking the required state approval for the designation.
“Gen. James is an American hero,” Broxson said in a news release announcing his legislative initiative. “He represents the true spirit of the Panhandle and our values. I look forward to presenting this bill to my colleagues in Tallahassee next session and sharing with them the story of ‘Chappie’ James.”
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