August 23rd: Eugene Bullard Posthumously Commissioned
On the morning of December 22nd, 1959, host Dave Garroway interviewed a seemingly unassuming guest on NBC’s Today Show: one of Rockefeller Plaza’s elevator operators. Though the sixty-four-year old man, Eugene Jacques Bullard, wore his elevator operator’s uniform for the program he was not there to discuss his current job. He was there to talk about the job he’d done decades earlier in the skies over eastern France that earned him the nickname Hirondelle Noire de la Morte: The Black Swallow of Death. The first African-American military aviator.
Corporal Eugene Bullard, Lafayette Flying Corps
The descendant of freed Hatian slaves on his father’s side and Creek Native Americans on his mother’s, Eugene was born October 9th, 1895 in Columbus, Georgia. The seventh of ten children in an unhappy household, he ran away at age 11. After a few years roaming the southern US and experiencing the widespread prejudice and oppression endemic across the region, Eugene stowed away on a German freighter and went ashore in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1912. After spending time in Glasgow, he continued south to London and joined an all-African-American entertainment troupe as a boxer and slapstick performer. After a trip to France in 1913, he moved to Paris where he continued to box and worked in a music hall until the outbreak of World War I.
Bullard, still an American citizen, enlisted in the French Foreign Legion as a machine gunner in October, 1914. Over the next year and a half he served in heavy combat on the Western Front in the Battle of the Somme, the Second Battle of Champagne, and the Battle of Verdun. Throughout his time in the Legion he served in a number of its subordinate units, including the 170th Infantry Regiment whose nickname (“The Swallows of Death”) would later serve as the basis of his own. At Verdun, on March 5th of 1916, he suffered wounds serious enough that he was evacuated from the battlefield and sent to Lyon for recuperation.
Bullard in the uniform of the 170th
With his wounds healed by the fall of that year, Bullard decided (on a bet, according to some sources) to join the aviation arm of the French Army, the Aéronautique Militaire. After being assigned to the Lafayette Flying Corps (a collection of French aviation units made up of American volunteers) and completing aerial gunnery and flight training, he earned his pilot’s license on May 5th, 1917. He flew over twenty combat missions with several different squadrons and is credited (albeit unconfirmed) with at least one German plane shot down. The personal insignia painted on his aircraft (in which he often flew along with a rhesus monkey named Jimmy) was a heart run through by a dagger and the words “All Blood Runs Red.”
Eugene Bullard poses with Jimmy
Unfortunately, that spirit of equality was not shared by his home country’s armed forces at the time. When the US entered the war in the spring of 1917, they began the process of incorporating American citizens serving in French-controlled units like the Lafayette Flying Corps. Bullard attempted to transfer to the US Army Air Service but was turned down due to his race. He returned to the Aéronautique Militaire, but found himself in hot water after a fight with a superior officer over racist comments. As punishment he was transferred back to the 170th and assigned to its service battalion in January of 1918. Unable to return to the front lines, he remained in the French Army through the end of the war and until his discharge in October of 1919.
His military service seemingly at an end, Bullard returned to Paris and worked as a drummer and manager at a nightclub called Le Grand Duc until he opened his very own appropriately named club: L'Escadrille (French for “squadron”). In the years between World Wars, Eugene cultivated friendships with notables in the world of music and high society, got married, had two daughters, and got divorced. By all accounts, he lived a good life during his peacetime years in Paris. But when the shadow of war fell once again across the European continent, he offered his services in defense of France and freedom once again.
After World War II broke out in September, 1939, Bullard (who, among his many talents, spoke German) began spying on the German patrons of his club on behalf of the French government. When Germany invaded in 1940, he rejoined the Army and was wounded in the attempted defense of Orleans. As France fell, he managed to escape to neutral Spain and, from there, to the United States. He worked what odd jobs he could throughout the war (including a brief stint as a translator for Louis Armstrong) but, when he attempted to return to Paris and his previous life there, he learned L’Escadrille had been destroyed. So Eugene decided to remain in the country of his birth.
Bullard assists in lighting the eternal flame at France's
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris, 1954
He lived in the US for the rest of his life, but made several return trips to France in the 1950’s. In 1954 he participated in a ceremony at France’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and in 1959 he received the Legion of Honor from Charles de Gaulle. Yet Bullard remained unknown and underprivileged in his home country, living alone in a small apartment in Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood while he worked the elevators of Rockefeller Plaza. Worse, he regularly experienced ill-treatment and segregation, even in a supposedly prorgressive state like New York. During the infamous 1949 Peekskill riots just north of New York City, when members of the local VFW, American Legion, and law enforcement attacked attendees of a concert held by Paul Robeson (a famous African-American entertainer and Civil Rights Activist), Bullard was one of those beaten.
State troopers, local police officers, and fellow veterans
assaulting Bullard with billy clubs during the Peekskill Riots
His appearance on NBC marked the first, and only, instance of widespread recognition within the US during his lifetime. Eugene Bullard died less than two years later, on October 12th, 1961, of stomach cancer at age 66. The recipient of fifteen French military awards over the course of both World Wars, the first African-American to fly a plane in combat was laid to rest with full military honors in Queens, New York. Decades later, the US Air Force redressed the failure of the old air service and granted Eugene Bullard his posthumous commission as a second lieutenant on August 23rd, 1994.
Bullard, in his elevator operator uniform, shares a laugh on-air
with Today Show host (and WWII Navy veteran) Dave Garroway