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THERE WERE two black pilots in World War I, both grandchildren of slaves, one on each side of the conflict. Ahmet Ali (Çelikten), of Somali Rumanian descent, served in the Ottoman Air Force. Eugene James Bullard, born in Columbus, Georgia, flew in the French Air Service.
Not a great deal is known about Ahmet, though records suggest he first flew in 1914, perhaps three years before Bullard earned his wings. In 1917, Ahmet was posted as a Captain to Berlin.
Ahmet served in the Turkish Army until 1949. His wife and two daughters were pilots as well. He died in 1969.
By contrast, Bullard’s legacy is larger than life. He was a boxer, music hall performer, French Foreign Legionaire, World War I combat pilot, jazz musician and Paris club owner, Allied spy, victim of a race riot, and one of the inspirations for a 2006 movie, “The Flyboys.”
Yet, I learned about this guy only recently, through a chance encounter in my flightsim hobby.
Eugene Bullard was only 12 when he stowed away from America to Scotland on the German ship Matherus. Odd jobs took him to Liverpool where he trained as a boxer under the tutelage of Aaron Lester Brown, the “Dixie Kid.” A stint in vaudeville got Bullard to Paris where he continued his boxing career.
When war broke out in 1914, he joined the French Foreign Legion and, eventually, served in the French Army’s 170th Line Infantry Regiment, a unit known as Les Hirondelles de la Mort, The Swallows of Death.
Bullard volunteered as a gunner in the French Air Service in 1916. Less than a year later, he made Corporal and qualified as a pilot with Aéro-Club de France license number 6950. His goal was to fly with the Escadrille Americaine N. 124, the famed Lafayette Escadrille.
Instead, along with 269 other Americans, Bullard was offered a posting in the Lafayette Flying Corps where he flew perhaps 20 combat missions in Spads and Neuports.
When the U.S. entered WWI in 1917, its Army Air Service recruited Americans already serving in the Lafayette Flying Corps—but only white Americans. Bullard remained in French service, where his WWI commendations included the Croix de Guerre with a bronze star, Médaille militaire, Croix du combatant voluntaire 1914 – 1918 and the Médaille de Verdun.
After WWI, he returned to Paris, where he was a jazz drummer, a manager of the famed club Le Grand Duc, and eventual owner of his own Quartier Pigalle nightclub, L’Escadrille.
During the late 1930s, French authorities recognized Bullard’s language proficiencies and enlisted him to share information gleaned from German agents frequenting his jazz club.
With the German invasion in 1940, Bullard and his two daughters fled Paris. He volunteered for the French 51st Infantry, was wounded defending Orléans, and escaped to neutral Spain. By year’s end, he returned—reluctantly, I suspect—to the U.S.
Bullard’s Paris nightclub had been destroyed during the war, though a financial settlement from the French government allowed him to buy an apartment in Harlem. He worked odd jobs once more, including being a French interpreter for Louis Armstrong and, ultimately, an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center.
In 1949, black entertainer and activist Paul Robeson organized a concert in benefit of the Civil Rights Congress to be held near Peerskill, Westchester County, just north of New York City. Concertgoers were attacked by a mob with racist, anti-communist, and anti-union sentiments—and support of local American Legion and Veteran of Foreign Wars members.
Eugene Bullard was one of the victims. Though documented on film, no one was ever prosecuted for the assault. Twenty-seven plaintiffs filed a civil suit against Westchester County, the American Legion and VFW. Three years later, charges were dismissed.
In 1954, Bullard returned as a guest of the French government to take part in a rekindling of the flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Five years later, Bullard was made a chevalier of the Legion d’honneur, France’s highest honor.
Eugene Bullard died in Manhattan at age 66 in 1961.
On August 23, 1994—33 years after his death and 77 years after being denied entry into the U.S. Army Air Service—Bullard was posthumously commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014