WWI Aviator Series: The First One
It’s no secret that getting into the Air Corps, during the First World War or any other conflict, is quite a feat. As we’ve all learned from Top Gun, combat pilots are often considered the elite of the elite, and before they can even sit in the cockpit of a fighter plane, there’s all kinds of hoop jumping (or flight looping) for a spot in the prestigious ranks. And unfortunately, especially during the First World War, those hoops increase exponentially for black people. But that didn’t stop Eugene Jacques Bullard – who beat all the odds, and heaps of racism, to become the first Black American fighter pilot in history. And unlike many of his flying contemporaries, Bullard would live to tell the tale.
Eugene Bullard was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1895, descended from ancestors born into the evils of slavery in the deep south. And while the Civil War may have put an end to slavery in name, it didn’t dislodge the racism at all. As a young child, Bullard witnessed a horrific lynching attempt against his father after a work dispute gone wrong. While his father survived the attack, the episode still deeply traumatized young Eugene, and he soon became enamored with his father’s stories of France – a place where people were a bit more accepting of all races and backgrounds.
Those stories are what ultimately drove Eugene Bullard overseas in the early 1910s. Determined to escape racial discrimination, he traveled to Norfolk, Virginia, where he stowed away on a steamer ship bound for Scotland. From there, he eventually made his way to London, where he joined an African-American troupe of slap stick performers called the Freedmen Pickaninnies.
While the slap stick earned him a modest living on the rough London streets, enough to get by anyway, it was boxing where Bullard left some real marks (is that a boxing pun? Close enough? I hope so). He was so skilled on the ropes that he soon trained under famous London boxer Dixie Kid, who saw a lot of raw talent in Bullard. Kid eventually sent his pupil to Paris, the place Bullard had always wanted to see. He got to try his hand in some of the real star-studded boxing rings there, and by the start of World War I, Bullard had settled well in France with his fighting skills and a steady job at a music hall.
But the War to End All Wars caused a great deal of upheaval, and Bullard wouldn’t be spared from any of it. In October of 1914, he answered his new home country’s call to arms and signed on with the French Foreign Legion. After three months of training that only enhanced his already boxer-toned build, Bullard saw combat as a machine gunner in various skirmishes along the Somme. All went well (or at least as well as it can in a global, apocalyptic conflict) until he was sent to Verdun in 1916 – commonly recognized as one of the bloodiest sacrificial grounds in the entire First World War. Eugene himself later said of it: “The whole front seemed to be moving like a saw backwards and forwards… as earth was plowed under, men and beasts hung from the branches of trees where they had been blown to pieces.”
In such a grisly place, with such morbid killing on a daily basis, it wasn’t long before Bullard got caught up in the gore. During a particularly intense round of artillery, shrapnel knocked him out – slicing up his thigh and breaking out a few teeth. But despite the wounds, he delayed medical care in order to stay on the line and perform his important duty of carrying messages between officers, all while still under heavy enemy fire. The courage won Bullard the coveted Croix de Guerre with a bronze star – and a six month hospital stay away from the firing line.
While convalescing at a chateau outside of Lyon, Bullard got to talking with one of the air commanders at the nearby flying fields. He knew his condition wouldn’t allow him to return to the trenches, and he also knew that his machine gun skills would probably work just as well from a plane as on the ground. But when he offered to join the air service as a machine gunner, the air commander had a better idea. Bullard was clearly a courageous character with lots of energy and fanfare. His talents wouldn’t be contained to the back seat of a plane. Why not become a pilot instead?
It was just the push that Bullard needed, and he decided to go for it, despite there being virtually no black men in any of the allied flying corps. In November of 1916, with help from a number of French officers who admired his service record, Eugene Bullard applied for a spot in the world famous Lafayette Escadrille – a courageous team of strictly American combat pilots fighting under the French flag. A sticky situation, since America was still technically neutral at the time. But the Escadrille had attracted a lot of famous faces, and Bullard wanted in on the action. While his request to join the Escadrille was denied (they had stopped accepting applicants, with ranks already over swelled), Bullard did gain acceptance into the Lafayette Flying Corps – another flight squadron comprised of foreign pilots fighting under the French tri-colour. Bullard immediately departed for pilot training at Tours in the Loire Valley.
Bullard did well in training, and by August of 1917, the Lafayette Flying Corps assigned him to a combat squadron – Escadrille N. 93. The unit was based outside of Verdun, and equipped with all the latest and greatest Spad and Nieuport model bi-planes, painted with a flying stork to represent the squadron’s combat insignia. While not much is known of his service there, Bullard remained with this squadron until September of 1917, when he transferred to Squadron N. 85.
It was here that Bullard saw the peak of his combat pilot action, partaking in over twenty combat missions, where he is alleged to have shot down multiple planes. Although, according to records and writings of the time, none of his kills saw official confirmation. Be that as it may, Bullard still fit right in with the vibrant cast of characters in the pilot squadrons – donning himself “the Black Swallow of Death” and flying and fighting with just as much courage as the rest of them.
But when the US joined the war effort in 1917, his fortunes changed for the worse. Like all the other American pilots who wanted to serve under their own flag, now that it had officially entered the fray, Bullard reported for an army medical exam with the incoming American troops. Despite his wide breadth of experience overseas, and the glowing reviews given him by his French compatriots, Bullard was turned down for service in an American flying corps. The reason being the same one he heard over and over again in the States – No Blacks Allowed.
Once again booted aside because of racism, Bullard spent the rest of the war on the ground at a desk job, tangled up in paperwork that was far beneath his skill sets. As soon as the war ended, Bullard made a hasty return to Paris, where the French government honored him for his bravery on the ground and in the air. They awarded him the Croix de Guerre, the Médaille militaire, the Croix du combattant volontaire, and the Médaille de Verdun, along with almost a dozen other prestigious mentions and citations. Feeling much more welcomed abroad than at home, Bullard settled in Paris for the interwar years, where he worked as a jazz club drummer with a sparkling cast of musical performers. While keeping busy at his day and night jobs, he also found time to get married and have children.
Although Bullard’s fighting days weren’t over, either at home or on the battlefield. When World War II broke out, he didn’t hesitate to take up the call again – enlisting with the French 51st Infantry Regiment. There, he saw plenty of action in the battle to defend Orleans from the incoming Germans in June of 1940. He got gravely wounded in the fight (yet again), but was able to escape the vengeful Germans and make his way to neutral Spain. From there, he eventually returned to the United States. He was hospitalized and treated for his wounds in New York, but he never fully recovered.
He also didn’t find much improved conditions in his home country when it came to racism. Despite trying to get into every night club in New York, Bullard was denied work as a musician, and he instead scraped together a meager living with odd jobs such as a perfume salesman and security guard.
Then, in 1949, during a concert put on by a black entertainer and Civil Rights activist named Paul Robeson, the scene broke down into riots when members of various veterans groups accused Robeson of being a communist. In the ensuing melee, which came to be known as the Peekskill Riots, Bullard got gravely injured when he was attacked and beaten by an angry mob – which happened to include members of the local police force and security teams. The incident was actually caught on film and later included in a world famous documentary about these terrible riots. Thankfully, Bullard survived the incident.
By the 1950s, Eugene Bullard had become a mostly obscure figure, living alone in a Harlem Apartment, his wife having left him and his children grown. He spent his days as an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center, and his nights surrounded by the relics of his past that he kept in his apartment – framed photos of the famous persons he performed with (including the renowned Louis Armstrong), and a case displaying his whopping fourteen French military medals. He died in 1961 at the age of 66, a victim not of a battlefield wound from his many fights, but of stomach cancer.
I for one am glad to have got to know Eugene Bullard. Fighter, flyer, boxer, and performer. The courage it must have taken – not just to climb into those rickety, WWI airplanes, but also to stare down the evils of racism, must have been astronomical. Sometimes, I just don’t know how some people have so much courage. But I am so grateful for them, because it is these people who open doors that were once locked. They create change – they become the unstoppable force that actually can move an immovable object.
And they remind me that there’s things worth fighting for. Even when the situation feels so bleak. When you want to give up fighting because it feels like you can never win. When you feel so tired of being spurned, judged, mocked, and kicked around just for the color of your skin, your lifestyle, your gender. People like Eugene Bullard remind me to look at what can be instead of what is. To fight for that and never give up. Because there’s always a path forward, and we will find it.
The First Air Campaign – E. & J. Lawson
“First to Fly” – C.B. Flood
Knights of the Air – Time/Life Books
Georgia Photos by M.B. Henry – for more from Georgia and other US states, click here.
Eugene Bullard Photo taken from “The First Air Campaign” – Lawson.
BOOK SIGNING ANNOUNCEMENTS!
Come see me at one of these upcoming book events! To learn more about my debut novel, centered around WWII and D-Day, click here. I’ll keep you all posted as more events come up
SwampFox Books in Cedar Rapids, IA, will be hosting me for tea with the author at Craft’d Coffee Shop, SUNDAY, July 17, at 1pm. Some author Q&A followed by book signing.
Horizon Books in Traverse City, MI, will be hosting me for an author event and signing on SATURDAY, OCT 8, at 1:00pm. More details to come.