There is a wonderful new movie out called Red Tails. It is about the first African-American combat pilots who trained at Tuskegee, Ala.
The training of African-Americans in Tuskegee was an experiment to see if they had the skill to be aerial combat pilots. In the segregated and racist America of that time, there existed a stereotype that African-American men were unable to fight and did not have the intelligence to do things like fly.
The Tuskegee Airmen, along with many other African-American warriors, blew that lie out of the water by their courage and skill under fire.
However, the story of the first African-American fighter pilot begins not with the Tuskegee Airmen but right here in Columbus, many years before.
Eugene Jacques Bullard was born in Columbus on the 9th of October 1894. He was born to William O. Bullard, also known as Big Chief Ox, the son of a former slave. His mother was Josephine Thomas, a Creek Native American. Eugene grew up at a time of great racial discrimination and hatred. He witnessed his father almost being lynched by the KKK and his brother Hector was murdered by them.
His family would spend many nights hiding out from the KKK. During those fearful nights, Eugene’s father would comfort his 10 children with stories.
He would tell of faraway places where people were not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. He would tell of the stories he would hear of life under the French where people of color could do and be anything they wanted to be and did not have to be fearful for their lives and hide at night.
As a teenager Eugene stowed away on a ship heading to England. He wanted to escape the hatred and discrimination around him and see if he could find that place where a man’s color did not matter, the places that his father always talked about.
After landing and spending some time in England he moved to France. Shortly after arriving in France the First World War broke out.
Coming from a place where freedom for a man of color did not exist and now living in France, a place where color did not matter, he understood just how valuable freedom was and how important it was to fight for it. As a consequence, this young African-American man joined the French Foreign Legion in 1914 and later the French Army to fight.
He became an Infantry soldier and was engaged in many battles, particularly the bloody battle of Verdun. He was wounded twice in combat but each time his commitment to freedom made him return to the battlefield. Eventually his wounds became so bad that he was medically discharged out of the French army. For his gallantry he awarded one of France’s highest medals, the Croix de Guerre along with others.
Rather than stay out of the fight, he tried to discover new ways to join the battle. He took it upon himself to learn to fly and joined the French Air Force as a member of the Lafayette Flying Corps. He flew over 20 combat missions and was confirmed with shooting down two enemy aircraft. Because of his aggressive combat tactics, he earned the nickname “The Black Swallow of Death.” The Lafayette Flying Corps had many foreigners as pilots, particularly Americans. When America finally entered the war, Bullard, like the other Americans flying for the French, sought to fly for the Americans in their fight for freedom. He was told that as far as the Americans were concerned African-Americans are incapable of flying and that if he wanted to, he could join the American military and do menial work for the American forces.
Because the Americans were embarrassed about having an African-American as a fighter pilot, even for the French, they pressured the French Air Force to release him. Their bigotry could not bear the proof that their views of African-Americans were wrong; that they were in fact human beings that could accomplish anything like their white American brethren.
Being released from the French Air Force, this true American warrior, wanting to stay in the fight, rejoined the French infantry because he knew that if he joined the American Infantry he would probably end up doing menial work until the end of the war, as was common for African-American Soldiers at that time.
For his heroism, he ended the war with many awards for heroism to include the Knights of the Legion d’honneur.
After the war, Bullard remained in France as a jazz musician and club owner. He became acquainted and played with people like the great African-American entertainers and writers as Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong and Langston Hughes.
When World War II started, Bullard again found himself in the fight. He joined the French Resistance until he was badly wounded. The Resistance, rather than take the chance of having this hero captured, secretly smuggled him to American.
This great American Soldier died Oct. 12, 1961. When he was buried there were no American Soldiers at his funeral to give him honors. When he was laid to his final rest in New York City there was no bugler playing taps.
He was buried without any American military fanfare, but he was not forgotten by all. When the French Embassy in New York was notified of his death, they sent a military delegation to his funeral to bury him with full French military honors. Many years later, our nation recognized his heroism. On Aug. 23, 1994, 77 years from the day he was rejected to fly for the Army Air Corps due to his race, he was posthumously commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force.
Not only was he one of the first combat pilots in the world, he was the first African-American combat pilot our nation produced.
In many respects, he was also one of the most highly decorated African-American Infantrymen our nation produced at the time. He deserves a seat of honor not just in French history, but also in ours.
His life can serve as an example of the things we can gain as a nation when eliminate hatred and discrimination from our hearts.
May his accomplishments help to usher in the day when all of G-d’s children, people of all colors, can hold hands and sing the words of the old spiritual, “Free at last, thank G-d Almighty we are free at last.”