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