An extraordinary life

Georgia military hero had to leave U.S. to fulfill destiny
Contributed by Hanover Square Press

Contributed by Hanover Square Press

Eugene Bullard, the first African-American military pilot, was an unsung Georgia hero until 1994 when he was awarded an official "State Day" in his name. Given his impoverished beginnings — his father had been a slave — his odyssey may burden credulity, but its general outline appears to be true, as Phil Keith and Tom Clavin demonstrate in their biography, "All Blood Runs Red."

Bullard was born in Columbus in 1895. His mother was a Creek Indian. His father, William “Big Ox” Bullard, who worked on the Columbus riverfront, narrowly escaped lynching by a white mob in 1904. By the time Eugene had fled the state for Europe in 1912, he’d already been a self-sufficient teenage runaway, drifting around South Georgia for several years.

Due to his Haitian ties, the authors write, William “imbue(d) his children with an ideal that centered on the French culture being one where the color of a man’s skin made no difference … This conviction … shaped (Eugene’s) whole form of reference and, ultimately, his entire life.” Put another way, Eugene would pursue France as an idea as much as a place.

In Europe, he became a professional boxer. He had modest success in the ring and was good enough to afford “a small flat of his own near Montmartre” in the year leading up to World War I.

After the outbreak of hostilities, he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion and survived episodes of immense violence, including hand-to-hand combat. Nicknamed the “Black Swallow of Death,” he would not emerge unscathed.

Recuperating from a blast wound, he learned that the French Air Service could use eager American fliers for the Lafayette Escadrille military unit. He mastered acrobatic and formation flying, which relied on “hand commands” from airborne flight leaders; there were no radios.

“The early aviators were essentially flying in gasoline bombs that could explode at any moment,” write Keith and Clavin. It was a ghastly roller derby in the clouds: “If you must collide with someone in the air,” said one superior, “please let it be a German.”

Accompanied by a well-dressed Capuchin monkey named Jimmy, Bullard flew 25 missions that “resulted in two ‘probable’ kills,” perhaps bringing down a Fokker in the Red Baron’s famed Flying Circus. He was 22 years old and weighed 145 pounds.

Following America’s 1916 entry into the conflict, Bullard’s flying career ended when his transition to the American Air Service was stymied by Dr. Edmund Gros, the powerful racist co-founder of the Escadrille. It was a painful reminder of oppression he had left behind in the U.S.

Bullard’s notoriety as a wartime citizen-hero brought him into the orbit of the international high Bohemian set. His Monmartre bottle-clubs became ports-of-call in the ’20s, and he hosted artists, writers and film stars, including Picasso, Fitzgerald and Chaplin.

Bullard hated the Nazis. As the Second World War approached, he was recruited as a listener and courier for the Deuxieme Bureau, France’s domestic intelligence desk, similar to England’s MI5. He later confided that his German clientele “figured no Negro could be bright enough to understand any language except his own … so (the Nazis) were not at all careful about discussing military secrets within my hearing.”

After France fell in 1940, Bullard begged to join the fight, but, at 44, he sustained a cracked vertebra from another shell blast. Hobbled, he ran-up a passport in Bordeaux, crept to Lisbon, then exfiltrated by steamer to New York.

Bullard was now a double-exile, “rooted in both cultures,” note the authors, “and had to defend each.” His stateside circumstance was immediately dispiriting. He secured an apartment in Spanish Harlem and accepted humdrum jobs.

When he briefly returned to Georgia in 1946, Columbus was like a parade of ghosts: Big Ox was dead, his large family atomized, the old home obliterated. Bullard was completely unknown. He learned that his brother, Hector, had been been lynched on his peach farm. (Seizing this detail, AJC staff writer Jeremy Redmon investigates Hector’s fate in “The Vanishing Stories of the Bullard Brothers,” for the Bitter Southerner.)

With the gathering momentum of the civil rights movement in the late ’40s, Bullard leapt right in, standing his ground when he was attacked by a nasty sheriff’s mob at one of Paul Robeson’s infamous Peekskill 1949 concerts. (An incendiary photograph of this one-sided brawl is reprinted in “All Blood Runs Red.”)

Bullard returned to France a few times in the ’50s, road managing two European tours for his old friend Louis Armstrong, often sitting in on drums. In 1959, Eleanor Roosevelt celebrated his achievements in her syndicated column. He was also a guest on the “Today Show,” hosted by the owlish Dave Garroway, who became curious about the colorful medals on the coat Bullard wore as an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center.

Shortly before his death in 1961, Bullard was still little known in Georgia, but he was dubbed a knight of France when he was awarded that country’s highest honor, the Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur, accompanied by the fraternal embrace of President Charles de Gaulle.

A wonderful thing about “All Blood Runs Red” is that young Bullard’s dream of France as “a magical, mystical nirvana” would come true, barring life’s untidy inevitabilities and the occasional intrusion of American racism into the egalitarian, existential world in which he came to move. Bon vivant, warrior, gentleman-adventurer, his “second grade education” in the Jim Crow South posed neither an impediment to Bullard’s intellectual curiosity nor to his sense of human possibility.


by Phil Keith with Tom Clavin

Hanover Square Press

326 pages, $27.99