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ISSUE 94 - December 2009
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Une Vie Extraordinaire

By David Rose, Contributing Editor
San Diego, California

I lived in Verdun for three or four years in the early 1950’s. For those who don’t immediately recognize the name, Verdun is in the north east of France on the Meuse River. It is located just east of Metz, pivotal town in French history. These towns have often born the brunt of invasion from the East, and so it was at the onset of WW1 when French resistance there caused the front to bend at Metz and stall in a semi circle around Verdun.

The many hills surrounding that town are even today barren and pock marked from the intense shelling they suffered in the years of the war the French refer to as “1914/18”. The remnants of more than 20 WW1 forts still ring the town. Forts Douaumont, Vaux, Moulainville, and Souville, as well as Sartelles (where I would nearly lose my life to a land mine in 1951) stand vigil over the lost lives of millions of soldiers from both sides. Where once steep moats and deep trenches stood protecting thousands of huddling Dough Boys, the revetments are now worn, rounded, nearly unrecognizable.

It was in Verdun that I learned of the extraordinary life of Gene Bullard.

In 1914, one of the Foreign Legion Volunteers defending Verdun was an American named Eugene Jacques Bullard. He certainly hadn’t planned to be there. When the war broke out it found him in Paris, variously making a living as a boxer and part time music hall performer. A life made all the more foreign for his having been born in rural Georgia, to slave parents.

At the turn of the century, Bullard parents, Josephine, a Creek Indian, and William "Big Chief Ox" Bullard, and their ten children were the property of a Georgia planter, Wiley Bullard. Life as a slave, and shaken by witnessing the near lynching of his father, drove the boy Eugene to flee his family in 1906. Stories now abound of his travels; he lived with Gypsies, was taken in at a horse ranch, taught to ride as a jockey; then, not yet a teenager, regaling his fathers tales of Europe without color laws, he stowed away on a ship bound for Europe.

So it happened that Bullard was in Paris by 1913, and when the War erupted the following year, he joined the French Foreign Legion. Twice seriously wounded in one of the fierce battles defending Verdun, Bullard was both awarded the Croix de Guerre and declared unfit for combat infantry service. He requested assignment to flight training and, as an American, was assigned to the all American Lafayette Flying Corps. Records show Bullard flew 20 missions as a Spad pilot, making him the first African-American U.S. military pilot ever, and a successful one in that he shot down a German plane and is credited with a second. His Squadron mates daubed him “The Black Swallow of Death.


Unfortunately for Bullard, when the U.S. entered the war in 1917, the Lafayette espadrille was taken over by the U.S. Army which grounded Bullard and returned him to the French Infantry. Here you will find a number of stories regarding his being rejected by the U.S. Army, but the fact is, he was a Black pilot which was against Army regulations at the time.

Bullard survived the War and settled in Paris where he was well known and honored as a true hero of the French struggle. He spent the years between the wars owning night clubs, living the Paris life of the twenty’s, sharing the early European jazz scene, associating with many luminaries including Marion Davies and Earnest Hemmingway and sometimes performing himself. But when World War 2 erupted, Bullard, 46 years old, once again joined the French Army. He was soon seriously wounded, captured by the Germans, escaped, made his way to the Americans and sent to the ‘States’ to recouperate.

Bullard never fully recovered from his numerous war injuries. He lived in relative obscurity in New York City, all the while supporting the civil rights movement, enduring beatings and abuse for the principals he so strongly lived by.

But his heroism was never forgotten by a grateful French Nation. In 1954 he was honored by the French Government as a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur and chosen to light the ‘Everlasting Flame’ at the French Tomb of the Unknown Soldier beneath the Arc de Triomphe.

Upon his death in 1961, Bullard was buried in a legionnaires uniform by French Officers and accorded full military honors. You can visit him where he rests today in a section of the cemetery of Flushing New York set aside for French War Veterans. Bullard was posthumously honored as a Lieutenant in the United States Air Force by the U.S. Secretary of the Air Force in a memorial service there on the 29th of August, 1994, seventy seven years to the day after his rejection for service in the U.S. Army.

The extraordinary adventures enjoyed and endured by one man born into 1890’s slavery can be followed in greater detail at William I. Chivalette’s wonderful site at:

and by simply entering ‘Eugene Bullard’ in Google.
By David Rose, Contributing Editor

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