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No. 997:
Gene Bullard

Today, let's meet the very first black pilot. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Gene Bullard was born in Georgia in 1894. His father was a black laborer with some education. His mother was a Creek Indian who died when he was only six. Author Jamie Cockfield tells how Bullard's father told him stories from books he'd read. Bullard grew up knowing there was a country, far away, called France -- a place where black people were treated like human beings.

That lay upon his mind, and, while he was still a boy, he ran away from home. He worked his way across America toward France. He stowed away on a transatlantic freighter, was caught, and was put ashore in Scotland. Then Bullard worked his way south through England. He took up prizefighting. He fought in England, North Africa, Germany. In 1913 he was finally sent to Paris for a bout.

Paris was all he'd dreamt it'd be. He stayed. When the Guns of August sounded in 1914, he joined the French Foreign Legion. The day after his first terrible action in the Battle of Artois, only 1700 out of 4000 men in his outfit answered roll call.

He fought in Champagne. Then, at Verdun, a German shell blew a hole in his leg. A Saturday Evening Post writer caught up with Bullard in the hospital and wrote that he was a "[confident] black Hercules ... not at all like the Negro we knew at home."

Bullard's wound left him unfit for the infantry, but the new French flying service didn't care if he walked with a limp. In 1916 they took him into flying school. He trained, qualified, and went to the front. He brought down a German plane in his first dogfight -- then sputtered back to the airstrip with 78 bullet holes in his SPAD. He shot down a second plane over Verdun.

After the war, he opened a night club in Paris. When the Germans rolled into Paris in 1940, Bullard fled. He was a sure candidate for the concentration camps, and that angered him. He found his old infantry unit and fought with them until Germany defeated France. Then he fled, by way of Spain, back to the America he'd left so long before.

Bullard's last job was operating an elevator in the RCA Building. Dave Garroway spotted him there and gave him a guest spot on the Today Show. That was pretty meager honor for someone wearing every medal the French had to give -- a hero who'd been embraced by General de Gaulle.

His SPAD had once carried his personal insignia -- a red heart with a knife through it and the words, "Tout le Sang qui coule est rouge!" -- "All blood runs red." And his last words carried that same power of double meaning. Lying in New York's Metropolitan Hospital in 1971, he suddenly seized a friend's hand. He gasped, "It's beautiful over there." Then he died.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Cockfield, J.H., All Blood Runs Red. Legacy: A Supplement to American Heritage, February/March 1995, pp. 7-15.

See also, the Wikipedia article about Bullard.