Eugene Bullard. An American who flew for France
A largely unsung and unknown hero of the Lafayette Flying Corps was the fascinating Eugene Jacques Bullard. He was an African-American from Columbus, Georgia who would become the first African-American pilot. The son of a freed slave, he left Columbus by himself to move to Atlanta while still a teen. He had been told that the way to escape racial prejudice was to head to Europe, particularly France. A long time back, his father had pointed out to him that Bullard was a French name and that at least one ancestor had hailed from there. So from Atlanta, he moved to London and then soon after to Paris. There he became a boxer and did relatively well. France had been good to Bullard, and he had quickly fallen in love with the country. So when World War I broke out, Bullard signed up for the French Foreign Legion. He was assigned to the French army's 170th Infantry Regiment whose nicknames were the "Swallows of Death". He was wounded twice at Verdun and then sent to a Parisian hospital where he spent the next six months recuperating. His valor was recognized with a chest full of French military decorations including a Croix de Guerre.
While convalescing in Paris, his friend and fellow Southerner Jeff Davis Dickson bet Bullard $2,000 that he could not get into the French Air Force. Bullard took the bet and on October 5, 1916 arrived at the French aerial gunnery school at Cazaux on the Atlantic. It was at Cazaux that he met Edmond Genet. He told Bullard about the Lafayette Escadrille which inspired him to realize that he wanted to be a pilot and not a back-seat gunner. In mid-November with Genet's help he transferred to the flight school at Tours for pilot training. The training took a few more months, but it was inevitable given Bullard's persistence that it would pay off. Bullard earned his pilot's license and the Dickson faithfully paid the $2,000. It was a considerable sum at that time, especially for a gentleman's bet. Dickson admitted that hated to lose the money, but was delighted that at least Bullard was from Dixie. But the result of the bet was to launch Eugene Bullard into history as the first ever African-American aviator.
He wanted to join the Lafayette Escadrille as one of its pilots, but was kept out of it because of the prejudice of Doctor Edmund L. Gros, the unit's most important organizer in France. The day he was officially rejected was August 23, 1917.
He reached the front lines on August 27th flying 20 patrols in a Spad VII for French Escadrille Spa.93. He then flew numerous patrols in a Spad with Escadrille Spa.85 from September 13th to November 11, 1917. His Spad had an insignia lettered "All Blood Runs Red" and his nickname became the Black Swallow of Death. By some accounts, Bullard shot down a Pfalz and a Dr.I. Other sources, like Craig Lloyd in his biography "Eugene Bullard: Black Expatriate in Jazz-Age Paris" state that none were ever confirmed. Later, possibly because of Dr. Gros' influence, he was bumped out of the French Air Force and then transferred back to the 170th Infantry Regiment of the French Army.
After the war, Bullard settled down, and in 1923 married a French woman from a wealthy family named Marcelle Straumann. They settled down and had two daughters Jacqueline and Lolita.
Post-war Bullard bought a bar named "Le Grand Duc" on the north side of Paris. In the late 30s before World War II, he was recruited by French intelligence to spy on the Germans who came to his bar.
When World War II broke out in 1939, Bullard was still living in Paris running his bar. He remained very devoted to France and tried to join the French army but was considered too old. In 1940, he escaped from German occupied France, biked all the way down to Portugal and returned to the United States via a Red Cross ship. He settled in New York. He soon extricated his daughters, but Marcelle remained in France and eventually they divorced.
In 1954 he, along with two other French veterans, was invited by French President Charles de Gaulle to light the flame of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc of Triumph in Paris.
He died, age 66, on October 12, 1961, his achievements all but forgotten. He was buried by French veterans in the "French" section of a cemetery in Flushing, NY.
While Eugene Bullard is not as famous as the Tuskegee Airmen or Benjamin O. Davis Jr., as an African-American aviator, he was before all of them. The Chicago Tribune heralded him "as probably the most unsung hero in the history of U.S. wartime aviation" and others noted that his single-handed accomplishment was the equivalent of what the Tuskegee Airmen had accomplished in World War II.
2018 Update: Bullard is being recognized belatedly. The Columbus, GA. airport has a bust of him. He is in the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame. And I understand a documentary of him has been made.
Many of these are excerpts from my book "American Eagles." Please support this website and our efforts to recognize our first combat aviators by buying it. 2013 Update: Also please see my book review of a terrific new book: Eugene Bullard - "World's First Black Fighter Pilot".
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$ 9.95 Lafayette Escadrille: America's Most Famous Squadron
$ 9.95 POW Stories of World War II
$ 9.95 Disaster at Dieppe: World War II's Little D-Day
$29.99 The Used Tank Guide of World War I and World War II
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"American Eagles - The Illustrated History of American Aviation in World War I" ($9.95, paperback, 370 pages, 8.5"x11", black and white, add $3.95 for shipping and handling or purchase download or SAVE BIG on book and download):
American Eagles features 220 photos, new maps and beautiful artwork by Michael O'Neal. It tells of American World War I combat aviation, the aviators, their planes, their aerodromes, their stories and what happened to them after the war. Read about America's first fighters, bombers and observation planes, the Lafayette Escadrille, USN Aviation, USMC Aviation, the United States Air Service, etc.
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"Lafayette Escadrille: America's Most Famous Squadron" ($9.95, 204 pages, digest size, black and white, add $3.95 for shipping and handling or purchase download or SAVE BIG on book and download):
The Lafayette Escadrille is about the brave Americans who volunteered to fly for France and the United States 103rd Aero Squadron during World War I. Read about Raoul Lufbery, Bill Thaw, Kiffin Rockwell, Norman Prince, Charles Biddle and the early days of American World War I military aviation before it was known as the United States Air Force. These men flew Nieuports and Spads against Fokkers and Albatroses. This book has lots of new research and is thoroughly well-documented. 204 pages, 62 photos and maps.
"Narayan Sengupta's "The Lafayette Escadrille: America's Most Famous Squadron" is a wonderfully written history of one of the most unique air combat units that ever existed. Not only is his book factual and chock full of historical photos (80+), the text is nicely augmented with maps, appendices, and a very complete bibliography. Great job, all around!"
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"A concise, well written history of one of the most significant fighter squadrons in American history. Long before the US entered World War One, these volunteers showed that not all Americans were "too proud to fight." They helped defend the skies of France and laid the groundwork for what would eventually become the United States Air Force. Mr. Sengupta has done an excellent job of telling the story of some of the most colorful individuals in American history. Very readable and superbly illustrated, the book is thoroughly researched and well documented."
Steve Tom, PhD, Lt Col USAF (Ret)
"POW Stories" ($9.95, paperback, 189 pages, 6"x9", black and white, add $3.95 for shipping and handling or purchase download or SAVE BIG on book and download):
POW Stories: remarkable stories told by men once POWs in Germany. Some were in the US Army, others in the United States Army Air Force. Read exhilarating, astonishing and poignant real-life stories by Fred Scheer, James Golden, Les Schrenk and many others. All were POWs in Germany during WWII. Jim was a Mustang pilot who was the last Allied pilot shot down on D-Day. Fred escaped twice and was recaptured. He made it out for good on his third escape. And Les survived the brutal German Death March. 189 pages, 35 photos and maps.
"POW Stories is a masterfully assembled collection of first-hand tales of survival, comradery and reunion, an emotional journey of brave men recounting their highs and lows and finding humor in the darkest places. The stories should never be forgotten. Well worth the read."
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"I thoroughly enjoyed it and shed a fair amount of tears because it was so REAL. Their tales are shared so simply but the impact on the reader is huge. Excellent work."
The raid on Dieppe, code named Operation Jubilee, was the first invasion/large scale raid, of World War II. Jubilee featured the first use of Rangers, Churchill tanks, tanks in an amphibious assault, P-51s and Typhoons and more. Approximately 6,000 troops were roped into the attack: they included 5,000 Canadians, 1,000 British, 50 American Rangers and 24 French light infantry. Poor planning and Murphy's Law led to an 85% casualty rate for the Canadians who landed! It was a rate far, far worse than the 10% suffered by the US Marines at Tarawa in late 1943 or the 15% that would be sustained by the Americans on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. But their sacrifice was not in vain and may have saved 10 times as many lives in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. This is an easy read. At the same time, it is thoroughly documented. Its tables and six-page index makes it a great reference book. 167 pages, 6" x 9", 66 photos and maps.
The Used Tank Guide has a 36 page overview of World War I and World War II tanks (and self-propelled artillery and tank-destroyers, etc.). Then is the eye-candy photo album section with 700+ fantastic full-color photos and 115+ profiles of tanks, self-propelled guns and tank destroyers in the most color-packed book on World War I and World War II armored vehicles ever...
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This exquisite collection showcases tanks in full-color as never seen before. Countries represented: Canada, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden, USSR, United Kingdom and USA.
Bad Boys is a terrific scenario where the US President makes the United States very aggressive, attacking Nazi Germany and other dictatorships, but the US sells its soul in the process... Download for $13.95 Hearts of Iron II scenario - Bad Boys! - more information on my 5 Star General website...
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