After Action Review (AAR)
Eugene Jacques Bullard – The First African-American Military Pilot known as The Black Swallow of Death
In August 1914, at the outbreak of the Great War in Europe, aircraft did not enter into the plans of the belligerents. As millions of front-line troops from all the nations were slaughtering each other on the far-flung battlefields, the total number of aircraft deployed by the combatants was only a few more than 500 fragile, unarmed monoplanes and biplanes.
The early military pilots who were flying over the trenches of the Western Front were essentially aerial chauffeurs. Their job was to ferry an observer over the countryside to report on troop movements. For the generals, the only conceivable reason to place guns on an airplane was to protect that reconnaissance aircraft. But for those pilots and observers, it was a means “to have a go” at the other fellow.
Firing pistols and carbines at a passing foe traveling at 90 miles an hour in another aircraft had limited effects and attempts to drop grenades on them from above proved a total failure. Mounting machine guns on their aircraft would change all that. But carrying such a weapon was a considerable burden for the lightweight, underpowered aircraft of 1914. It was also hazardous; there was a serious risk of blowing parts off your own machine, with its vulnerable array of struts and wires.
What the more skilled and adventurous pilots instinctively yearned for was a gun that they could aim simply by pointing their aircraft at the target. That became a reality with the invention of an interrupter gear that would pause the discharge of the machine gun each time a propeller blade was in its line of fire. The fighter pilot was born.
Fighter pilots were of varied origins. A good number, like Manfred von Richthofen, transferred from the cavalry, which had lost its function in the face of barbed wire and the machine gun. Some, like the British ace James McCudden or the German Werner Voss, were drawn to aviation because of their interest in machines and worked their way up from ground crew to pilots. A large number came from the ground forces. It was easy to envy the adrenalin rush that pilots experienced in a World War I fighter plane, combining the thrills of fighting and flying, laughing in the face of danger. There was nothing glamorous about trench life.
No man’s land was dirty, smelly and riddled with disease. A soldier’s life in the trenches meant living in fear. Fear of cholera, dysentery, trench foot and of course, the constant fear of snipers, artillery fire, deadly gas and enemy attack. Whenever it rained, the water would pool up the bottom of the trenches, and all of the soldiers had to step, sleep and fight in that putrid water every day until it dried. That took a very long time. There were also rats, hungry rats as big as a cat feeding off the rotting corpses and often the living flesh of bone weary soldiers too exhausted to fight them off.
Many soldiers stuck in the damp malignant trenches looked up at the airmen and dreamed. A flyer had a warm, dry, lice-free bed 10 or 15 miles behind the lines. There was never any shortage of volunteers by veterans of the trenches for the air service.
Pilots, in general, were extremely young. British ace Albert Ball was a squadron leader at the age of 19. Many of them were also quite short. Cockpits were small and weight was a prime factor in aircraft performance. French ace Georges Guynemer is a case in point. He weighed less than 132 pounds and had been rejected as too frail for service in the infantry.
Many pilots never made it to the front lines. The air service was unprepared for the challenge of training thousands of new pilots. The result was a great waste of young lives. Almost 500 American Air Service volunteers died learning to fly. When casualties at the front were heavy, replacements were sent to combat units with 10 hours or fewer of flying time to their credit. This was not a certain death sentence but came close. Some of these young pilots testified to going through their first dogfight without seeing the enemy at all – everything happened too fast.
When the United States finally entered the “Great War” in April 1917, America’s Air Service ranked 14th in the world. They had no fighter planes of their own. The nation’s only trained combat aviators were those flying in France, with the famous “Lafayette Escadrille”.
The Lafayette Squadron was formed in April 1916 when American Norman Prince and a group of seven others were allowed to form a squadron in hopes that it would encourage the United States to enter the war.
“The Lafayette Escadrilles were American volunteers, a lot of them Ivy League college students who were impatient with the United States” according to Dr. Janet Bednarek of the University of Dayton. “Some of them had ties to France, felt a great affinity for the French and were very upset with the United States because we weren’t getting involved in the war.”
The squadron was originally the Escadrille American but was renamed to honor Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, A French aristocrat and military officer who fought in the American Revolutionary War as an aid to General Washington.
The Americans were a “Devil May Care” group that included Ivy league football players, southwestern cowboys, two lions named Whiskey and Soda, and Quentin Roosevelt, the youngest son of former President of the United States Teddy Roosevelt.
Their best pilot was Raoul Lufbery, an adventurer and world traveler who, born in France of an American father, joined the French Foreign Legion in 1914. During his travels, Lufbery had worked as a mechanic on the airplane flown by French exhibition pilot Marc Pourpe, and the two became best friends. Pourpe joined the French air force, and when he died in a crash, Lufbery immediately signed on to train in French bombers. “Raoul Lufbery flew, fought and died for revenge,” a fellow pilot once said.
American journalist James Norman Hall got an assignment to cover the Escadrille for the Atlantic Monthly. Captivated by the personalities he met and by the romance of their cause, he joined the unit on the front in June 1917. Hall and squadron mate Charles Nordhoff later co-authored “The Mutiny on the Bounty.”
Adding to their numbers was a pair of brothers, Paul and Kiffin Rockwell. The brothers were so devoted to military service and believed the French cause so “noble” that they enlisted on the day before the war’s opening battle, at Liège.
The group’s founders, William Thaw and Norman Prince “had the idea pretty much around the same time,” says World War I historian Blaine Pardoe. Thaw came from one of the 100 wealthiest families in the United States In 1913 he soloed in a Curtiss hydroaeroplane, bought for him by his father. When the war began, he went to France hoping to join the French air service, but settled for the French Foreign Legion and fought in the trenches for months until the air service made him an observer. Despite bad eyesight, Thaw became an ace and is probably the first American to fly in combat.
Prince may have been even wealthier than Thaw. When he was a child, he summered with his family at their estate in the French Pyrenees. He learned to fly at the Wright brothers’ school in Georgia and soloed in 1911. Frederick Henry Prince disapproved of his son’s aviation interests and forced the Harvard graduate into a law career in Chicago. The war gave young Prince a way out.
They all were seeking the thrill of a great exploit. Few considered the danger of that adventure. Of the 38 pilots who flew with the original, nine were killed in combat; at least six more were shot down or injured.
Eugene Jacques Bullard, the first African-American military pilot
The Escadrille was a colorful and brave lot, but the most extraordinary soldier and personality among this group of adventurers was Eugene Jacques Bullard, the first African-American military pilot.
Bullard’s story is not so much the tale of a forgotten soldier, but of a man who lived his life uniquely. He was so successful, at so many things, his life reads like fiction. His skills ran from combat pilot to jockey, to jazz drummer, to boxer, to spy. This son of a former slave’s resume is that of a Renaissance man.
Born in 1895 in a three-room house in Columbus, Georgia, Eugene James (Jacques) Bullard was the seventh child of Josephine Thomas and William O. Bullard. Bullard’s parents had Creek Indian as well as African American ancestry. His father was born into slavery on the property of Wiley Bullard, a planter in Stewart County.
With his older sister and brothers, Bullard absorbed his father’s conviction that African Americans must maintain dignity and self-respect in the face of the prejudice of a white majority determined to “keep blacks in their place” at the bottom of society.
Shaken by the near lynching of his father and seeking adventure in the world beyond Columbus, a child of only 11, he left home in 1906 seeking a paradise where he would not be judged by the color of his skin. In Atlanta, he joined a group of gypsies traveling the South. In 1909 he found work and patronage with the Zachariah Turner family of Dawson, Georgia. Friendly and hardworking as a stable boy, Bullard won the affection of the Turners, who allowed him to ride as their jockey in horse races at the County Fair.
While he was a young teenager, Bullard stowed away aboard a derelict German cargo vessel at Newport News, Virginia bound for Aberdeen, Scotland. Leaving his hiding place in search of food he was caught by a crew member and taken to the captain. The captain, rather than throwing him overboard, put him to work in the coal room of the ship’s dark and sweltering engine compartment.
Working his way south from 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. He found employment in the ragtime music halls of Paris.
When war broke out in August 1914, Bullard joined his fellow American expatriates in the French Foreign Legion, he was only 19, After five weeks of training, he was assigned to the Moroccan Division’s Third Marching Regiment, which remarkably included soldiers of 54 different nationalities.
Swallows of Death
In October, Bullard was sent to join the 170th Infantry, the “Swallows of Death.” Eugene Bullard and his comrades found themselves at one of the turning point battles of the war on the banks of the Somme River at Verdun. Bullard and the legionnaires did most of their fighting with their bayonets in assault after bloody assault. 300,000 Frenchmen were killed in three months. Another half a million were wounded, among them, Eugene Jacques Bullard. 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.”
He suffered wounds that removed him from the ground war and was eventually awarded The Croix de Guerre and Medaile Militaire for his actions, and a military retirement commission.
That wasn’t enough fighting for Bullard. Since he was no longer fit for duty with the infantry he talked his way into the French Aéronautique Militaire as a gunner/observer Once he won that position he talked himself into the pilot’s seat. He earned his wings from the aviation school on May 5, 1917. This made Bullard, along with the Ottoman Empire’s Ahmet Ali Celikten, the very first black fighter pilots in history.
He was soon assigned to the now famous Lafayette Escadrille. Corporal Bullard 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”. Fighter squadrons along the front were always on alert. They took off at alarms or on scheduled patrols to hunt enemy planes, or escort the primitive bombers. Communication between pilots in the air was limited. Machine guns frequently jammed. Plane engines failed. Pilots suffered from high-altitude sickness and frostbite. Wood and canvas airplanes offered little protection for the pilots and were not easy to fly. Aircraft engine maintenance was a new science, and primitive oil lubricants, such as castor oil were used. This meant pilots were often flying while breathing a fog of castor oil. As a result, they suffered chronic diarrhea.
For all those difficulties, Bullard became known for fearlessly flying into dangerous situations, often with his pet Rhesus Monkey “Jimmy” in the cockpit. He quickly amassed a distinguished record, flying twenty combat missions and downing up to five German planes. His first kill was a German Pfalze. The German pilot went into a classic Immelman turn, flying nose up and then turning backward, to attempt to come in behind Eugene. Ducking into a cloud bank Bullard emerged from below and to the right of his foe where he pulled in behind him and shot the German down.
When the United States entered the war, Bullard and other American expatriates applied for transfers to U.S. forces. Despite Bullard’s flight experience and passing the physical, his application was denied. The United States military also pressured France to ground Bullard permanently to uphold the U.S. policy against black pilots. France succumbed and removed Bullard from aviation duty.
Another tale of the tragedy of American racism
“It’s really another tale of the tragedy of American racism”, according to Dr. Bednarek. “The French were willing to accept him as an officer and a pilot, but the American military was strictly segregated and the air service and the air corps that succeeded it, did not believe that African-Americans were capable of being pilots and so they were not going to accept him into what would have to be an integrated unit.”
Eugene Bullard was discharged from the armed forces of France, a national hero of significant standing. He decided to remain in Paris. There he 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.
Handsome, articulate and dashing, a man who spoke French and English and German, who had grown up poor and shoeless in the deep south, he became quite the bon vivant. It is said he became friends with Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes, and Louis Armstrong, and even translated for Louis Armstrong. He married a French Countess, Marcelle Straumann and had two daughters, Jacqueline and Lolita.
By the late 1930s, however, the clouds of war began to change Bullard’s life dramatically. Even before World War II, Bullard, who also spoke German, agreed to a request from the French government to spy on fifth columnists who frequented his nightclub.
When the war broke out in 1939, Marcelle wanted to escape to the countryside and Bullard wanted to stay. She left him and he kept his girls with him in Paris. Bullard attempted in 1940 to rejoin his old infantry unit, the 170th. When that proved impossible, Bullard, now age 45, joined the 51st Infantry at Orleans as a machine gunner.
In June he was “severely wounded” for the second time in combat with the Germans, while “his dozen or so compatriots were killed,” Bullard made his way to Spain, fleeing certain death at the hands of the occupying Nazis. He was evacuated to New York by the Red Cross where he recovered from his wounds. He settled in the Harlem district of New York City. His daughters joined him soon thereafter
In the post-World War II years, Bullard took up the cause of civil rights. In the summer of 1949, he was involved in an altercation with the police and a racist mob at a Paul Robeson concert in Peekskill, New York, in which he was beaten by police. Another incident involved a bus driver who ordered Bullard to sit the back of his bus. These events left Bullard deeply disillusioned with the United States.
He returned to France briefly in 1950 but what he once had there was gone. He was unable to resume his former life. Back in the states, Bullard worked as a security guard and longshoreman.
From disinterest or uncaring, America never recognized or realized the legacy of the brave and noble Corporal Eugene Bullard. But France never forgot.
A Forgotten Hero
During his lifetime, the French showered Bullard with honors, and in 1954 he was one of three men chosen to relight the everlasting flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris. In October 1959, French President Charles DeGaulle visited the United States. He traveled to New York City to meet Bullard personally and in a lavish ceremony made him a National Chevalier, a Knight of the Legion of Honor, the highest ranking order and decoration bestowed by France. It was the fifteenth decoration bestowed upon him by the French government.
On December 22, 1959, he was interviewed on NBC’s Today Show by Dave Garroway and received hundreds of letters from viewers. Bullard wore his elevator operator uniform during the interview.
Eugene Bullard died in New York City of stomach cancer on October 12, 1961, at age 66. The first black fighter pilot in the world, the Black Swallow of Death, a man who had seen much war, was given final honors by the country he had loved and served during two world wars. He was buried with full honors by the Federation of French War Officers in the French War Veterans’ section of Flushing Cemetery in the New York City
It wasn’t until 1994 that the United States Air Force recognized him and posthumously commissioned him a Second Lieutenant.