Editor's note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.
(The Root) — Amazing Facts About the Negro No. 20: Who was the first African-American fighter pilot?
In the early years of the 20th century, W.E.B. Du Bois once wondered aloud when — and if — the emerging film industry in Hollywood would discover the treasure trove of compelling stories buried in the archives of African-American experience. I'm not sure which stories the great Du Bois had in mind, but it's hard to beat the life and times of Eugene Jacques Bullard as the stuff of which great action films are made. So, for any black filmmaker looking for a heroic life to chronicle, this column is for you. If ever a black adventurer's exploits were made for film, these are it. The truth of Bullard's life is much stranger than fiction. Django's got nothing on this brother.
Eugene Jacques Bullard was born in 1895 and died in 1961. His incredible feats have been written about by William I. Chivalette and Caroline M. Fannin, both of whose research is the basis for this column, while P.J. Carisella and James W. Ryan published a biography titled The Black Swallow of Death: The Incredible Story of Eugene Jacques Bullard, The World's First Black Combat Aviator, and Craig Lloyd published another biography, titled Eugene Bullard: Black Expatriate in Jazz-Age Paris. Long before the much-heralded Tuskegee Airmen, Bullard became the first African-American combat pilot, seeing active duty during World War I.
He was born in Columbus, Ga., one of 10 children. When he was 11, he ran away from home, and according to Fannin, "lived for a time with a band of [English-born] gypsies, who taught him to ride racehorses," working as a jockey in the South. In 1912, he ended up in Norfolk, Va., where, according to Chivalette, he "stowed away on a German ship bound for Aberdeen, Scotland."
In Liverpool, he joined a group of traveling minstrel performers called "Freedman's Pickaninnies." Somehow, he learned the skills of boxing while performing with the Pickaninnies, and "under the auspices of African American welterweight champion Aaron Lester Brown, 'the Dixie Kid,'" won his first fight in 1913. After touring in Russia, Berlin and throughout Europe, Bullard and the "Pickaninnies" ended up in Paris, where he would remain for much of the remainder of his life.
With the outbreak of war in 1914, Bullard enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. He was 19. He served in the Moroccan Division of the Third Marching Regiment, first as a machine gunner "in some of the bitterest fighting on the Western front," Fannin tells us, including at the Somme front, "where 300,000 Frenchmen were lost by the end of November," according to Chivalette. Then in 1915, Bullard was transferred to the 170th Infantry of the French Army, whom the Germans nicknamed "the Swallows of Death" because of their heroism, and from which he earned his nickname, "the Black Swallow of Death," due to his fearless courage.
His unit faced its most dangerous combat at Verdun, which the Germans "code named Verdun Operation Execution Place." Chivalette says that "In the 10 months of Verdun more than 250,000 died, 100,000 were missing, and 300,000 had been gassed or wounded." Bullard later remarked, "I thought I had seen fighting in other battles but no one has ever seen anything like Verdun — not before or ever since." It was hell. For a "crippling thigh wound" received at Verdun on March 5, 1916, Bullard was awarded the prestigious Croix de Guerre and the Medaile Militaire.
We should understand how very dangerous combat was for Bullard: In one battle of the Champagne Offensive, according to Chivalette, "five hundred men began the battle, but … only 31 remained — a 94 percent casualty rate." Bullard, who said he received "a little head wound" in the fighting, was one of those few survivors. While recovering from his wounds, Will Irvin interviewed Bullard for the Saturday Evening Post. We can only imagine the reaction of white Americans reading about the heroism of this black man, at the height of the Jim Crow era, when American armed forces remained strictly segregated, and black combat opportunities severely limited.
Now unable to return to the field, what does Bullard do? Retire and go home to safety, like any normal person would do? No way: He "transferred to aviation gunnery," according to Fannin. And on May 5, 1917, he earned his pilot's license ("number 6950 from the Aero Club de France), earning Eugene Jacques Bullard the historical distinction of becoming "the very first black fighter pilot in history." He then was trained for advanced flight and combat, and assigned to Squadron 93 of the legendary Lafayette L'Escadrille, or "Flying Corps," young American volunteers who flew for France. Flying Spad S.VII and Nieuport biplane fighter aircraft, Bullard flew "at least twenty missions over the Verdun sector," and claimed to have shot down two German fighters.
Chivalette tells us that Bullard, by now a corporal, "painted a red bleeding heart pierced by a knife on the fuselage of his Spad. Below the heart was the inscription 'Tout le Sang qui coule est rouge!' Roughly translated it says, 'All Blood Runs Red.' " We can get a sense of Bullard's courage and daring from the encounter that led to his second kill, which took place in November 1917: "He shot down a German Pfalze after the pilot went into a classic Immelman turn, flying nose up and then turning backward, to attempt to come in from behind. Bullard ducked into a cloud bank and emerged below and to the right of his foe where he pulled in behind him and shot the German down." This was one bad brother!
It will come as no surprise that after the United States entered the war, Bullard was abruptly transferred back to the 170th Infantry, most probably because the U.S. wouldn't accept the presence of a black pilot, a policy that would not change until the ban was lifted in 1940. (The Tuskegee Airmen finished their training in 1942.) Bullard applied to transfer to the U.S. Air Force, but despite his proven record of superior combat skills, his "application was ignored for the duration of the war."
Following the war, Bullard joined a jazz combo as a drummer, then became the manager of Le Grand Duc, one of the most popular of the early jazz clubs in Paris, famous as an initial venue for Ada "Bricktop" Smith. He used his experiences there to start his own jazz club, Club L'Escadrille, named after his unit in the air corps, after serving as the proprietor of Gene Bullard's Athletic Club. In 1923, he married a wealthy French woman, Marcelle Straumann, and they had three children. You'd think that this fairy tale life would end there, right? Not for Eugene Bullard!
When World War II broke out, Bullard attempted in 1940 to rejoin his old infantry unit, the 170th. When that proved impossible, Bullard — now age 45 or so — joined the 51st Infantry at Orleans, and in June was "severely wounded" for the second time in combat with the Germans, while "his dozen or so compatriots were killed," according to Chivalette. Bullard made his way to Spain, fleeing certain death at the hands of the occupying Nazis, and was evacuated to New York where he recovered. Afterward, he aided Charles De Gaulle's Free French forces.
And what occupation did this war hero find in the United States? He worked as an elevator operator in Rockefeller Center for the rest of his working life.
After the war, he remained active in New York's French community, until he returned to France briefly in 1950. And in 1954, he received one of the greatest honors that any veteran could receive: "The French government requested his presence to help relight the Eternal Flame of the Tomb of the Unknown French Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris," writes Chivalette. In 1959, at the age of 64, though Bullard was still unheralded by the American government, the French government honored his heroism by naming him a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, "in a lavish ceremony in New York City." Dave Garroway even interviewed him, Chivalette tells us, on The Today Show. Two years later, Bullard died in New York City.
Bullard is buried in the French War Veterans section of the Flushing cemetery in Queens, N.Y. According to Fannin, Bullard received a total of 15 medals for his military service from the French government. After years of official neglect, he was inducted into the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame in 1989, and in 1991, the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum installed his bust. At long last, in 1994, the United States Air Force posthumously commissioned him as a second lieutenant.
I hope that either Spike or George Lucas or a young black filmmaker is listening; what an action film Eugene Jacques Bullard's life would be! And we have to wonder, with Du Bois, how many other stories such as Bullard's are hidden in the archives of African-American history.
As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root.