The People News, a free newspaper serving Cleveland Tennessee (TN) and Bradley County Tennessee (Tn).

Of Bradley County Tn.

APRIL  2007

                            The People News, a free newspaper serving Cleveland and Bradley County Tn.






The Black Swallow of Death

Bizarre, Fascinating, and Wacky World War I & ll Secrets.

by Cecil Owen

The startled "Hun" (German fighter pilot) was amazed as a French air force fighter plane zoomed past his German Fokker fighter. For a few seconds they were head on and face to face. And it was the face of the other pilot that made the German shake his head in disbelief. For the French pilot's face was as black as a lump of coal.

Believe it or not, this German pilot had never seen a black man before, and especially one in the cockpit of an enemy plane. On both sides of the fuselage were painted in big red letters in French; "Tout Le Sang Qui Coule Est Rouge," translated into English "All Blood Runs Red." This French fighter plane was one of the best planes of World War One. It had a maximum speed of 137mph, which was very fast in the early 1900's. It was also unique because it was a "Spad S.X111." This airplane had a hot V-8 engine, while most of the airplanes of World War One had rotary piston engines. Even the red triplane of the Red Baron had a nine cylinder rotary piston engine. This means that the pistons were in a circle and rotated around a center shaft unlike the V-8 design.

Mounted between the V-8 engine blocks was a 37mm Hotchkiss Cannon. While two .303 Vickers machine guns were mounted directly in front of the pilot's cockpit. 

The pilot was also very unique, for he was the first and only black combat pilot of World War One. His name was Eugene Jacques Bullard, from Columbus, Georgia. His uniform was a flashy scarlet and black with black leather jacket and black boots. A flying helmet with goggles and a big black scarf completed his flying outfit.

Cecil Owen

They were flying over the Meuse-Argonne battlefield near Verdun, France. Heavy fighting has been going on there for years. The time was September of 1917. Even the squadron Bullard flew in was unique, it was called the "Lafayette Escardrille." It was a French squadron of American flyers who volunteered to fight for France. Their salary was paid by wealthy Americans living in France.

Bullard was involved in many air skirmishes, shooting down several German planes. Although he was  credited with only one "kill" because there has to be a witness to the "dog fight" (air duel). On one occasion Bullard landed and counted ninety six bullet holes in his plane.

He wanted everyone to call him just "Gene." He was not always in the French air service. World War One started on August 1st, 1914, and Gene became 19 years old on October 9th, 1914. He celebrated his birthday by enlisting into the French Foreign Legion Infantry. He had been living in France for about a year and had adopted it as his second country. Bullard was sent to the front as a  machine gunner in the 170th Infantry Regiment of the Moroccan division. The fierceness of the regiment caused the Germans to call them "The Swallows of Death."

Once his machine gun jammed and he was almost bayoneted by a German soldier. On March 2, 1916, all but four of his teeth were blown out of his mouth when an exploding artillery shell whizzed by, killing several other soldiers. Then four days later, his fighting days in the infantry were ended forever. The force of another artillery shell picked him up and threw him into a dugout. This time Gene suffered a bad leg wound. A Red Cross ambulance picked him up and he was carried on board a hospital train

that was headed for a hospital in Lyon, France.

While Gene was recovering from his wound, he began to reflect on his life. He was seventh in a family of eleven.

Both his father, William Bullard, and his mother,  Josephine Thomas, were slaves on a Chattahoochee River plantation. The owner was Wiley Bullard, a good primitive Baptist. The plantation was located just across the river from Cottonton, Alabama. Gene was just seven years old when his mother, Josephine died at the tender age of thirty seven. His father, William, did his best to raise the nine children but Gene was restless and never very happy after his mother's death. He ran away from home several times but was always apprehended.

When Gene became eleven years old, he ran away from home for good. He had the clothes on his back and $1.50 in his pocket. Knowing that his father would come looking for him again, Gene Bullard became a black gypsy. For

two years he traveled with a band (tribe)  of roving gypsies, they had come to the United States from England. They told Gene that the best place for a black man to live would be France.

Life in the early 1920's in the South was very deplorable.... If you wanted to beat up a black person or whip one with a bull whip, it was looked upon as a sport. You could even shoot one and the law would turn you loose.

Gene daydreamed for a golden utopia, where he would be treated as a first class citizen. One day he wandered onto the main dock in Norfolk, Virginia. A cargo ship, the SS Marta Russ was anchored, taking on a cargo. The skipper was Captain Westphal and they were headed for Hamburg, Germany, their home port. So that night, Gene slipped onboard and hid in a life boat. He was now a stowaway, headed for Europe and a new life. (He was sixteen years old).

Gene settled in London, England for a while. He made a living in two professions: a small income from boxing matches, and as a slapstick performer in Belle Davis Freedman's Pickaninnies in Vaudeville. Bullard only had a third grade education but he learned to speak French and German very fluently. However,  Gene's desire was to live in Paris, France and early in 1914 he reached that goal.

On October 16, 1916, Gene was transferred from the French Infantry into the French Air Service. One of his Army buddies bet him $2,000 that he

could never obtain a pilot's license. But on May 15, 1917 Gene won that bet and the coveted wings of a French fighter pilot.

When World War One was over, he became a drummer in a jazz band at Zelli's night club but he was also their artistic director. On July 17, 1923, Eugene Bullard married a French girl, Marcelle Henirette Straumann. (She was 22 and he was 28). They had two daughters, Jaqueline and Lolita, and one son, Eugene Jr. (He died after six months of double pneumonia.) 

Bullard bought a night club called the "Le Grand Duc" and it became very popular. Well known celebrities who patronized his night club were: Sophie Tucker, Charles Chaplin,  Edward G. Robinson, and Gloria Swanson. Louis Armstrong and Eugene Bullard were real pals. Even the Prince of Wales, Edward Windsor, who gave up his throne as King of England in 1936 was a popular visitor and also a good jazz drummer.

Gene Bullard had one big flaw, he had a "trigger temper." He was ready to fight at the drop of a hat. This caused him to be shot in the lower abdomen in 1936. The doctors believed his wound was so serious that he would die shortly. But Gene amazed everyone by recovering completely.

In 1939 Hitler was preparing to make his big move. Gene was recruited into the French military counter-intelligence service. (He became a spy for France.) Soon after Germany declared war on France, Gene went back to his old World War One infantry unit. Once again he became a machine gunner, this time at the age of 44. but after just three days of fighting, June 15-18, 1940, Bullard was wounded again.

Concussion from an artillery shell blew him clear across a street. Gene hit a wall so hard he received a  split and misaligned vertebra in his spine. The closest French hospital that had not been captured by German troops was far away in Angouleme, France so Gene, in great pain, had to hitch-hike almost 300 miles.

His plans were to flee Europe because he would be executed if captured by the racist Germans. (For he was black, a French hero of World War One, and a French Intelligence Agent.) To escape Gene had to travel through Southern France, all across Spain and onto the seaport city of Lisbon, Portugal. Awaiting there was an American steamship, the SS Manhattan. The skipper, U.S. Navy Commander, G.V. Richardson, was ordered there to pick up 700 American refugees. So ...on July 12, 1940, Gene sailed away, bound for New York City. He was saying good-bye to his beloved Paris forever. 

The French considered Bullard a great war hero. He was decorated with fifteen medals, including the highest, the "Chevalier De La Legion." In English this meant Gene had became a French Knight, France's first black Knight. Years later he was invited back to Paris to re-light the eternal flame on the tomb of the unknown soldier. (Which the Germans had extinguished).

One of Gene's last jobs was a humble elevator operator in Rockefeller Center. Eugene Jacques Bullard passed away on October 12, 1961 of cancer. He was a very remarkable person who had to fight racial prejudice all his life. (I believe he succeeded).

Eugene Bullard: Black Expatriate in Jazz-Age Paris by Craig Lloyd
The Greatest War Stories Never Told by Rick Beyer