WHILE CLARA AND ALDEBERT WERE HEADING south to avoid the Germans, another American left Paris to find them. Eugene Bullard walked towards the front lines, lugging a knapsack of sausages, crackers, canned food and a two-volume history of the American contingent of the French air corps during the First World War, the Lafayette Escadrille. ‘I said good-bye and set out to join the 170th Regiment in holding back the enemy–at least that was what I thought,’ Bullard wrote. His march took him to Châlons, about halfway along the 100-mile trek to Épinal in the Moselle Valley, where Bullard believed the French infantry regiment was holding the Germans back. Refugees at Châlons told him the Germans had already captured Épinal. So, he walked back to Paris. At the gates of Paris, Bullard learned that another infantry regiment, the 51st, had engaged the Germans near Orleans. He trudged south to join them.
Bullard, with the heavy pack still on his back, marched 50 miles in twenty-eight hours. He stopped at Chartres, where, as he wrote, ‘I had a stroke of luck. I ran into Bob Scanlon, the black boxer and comrade from the Foreign Legion. There were two of us now, together, two friends sharing everything. I did not feel lonely anymore.’
German Stukas dive-bombed Chartres as the two Americans were leaving. ‘During the bombardments I threw myself on the ground, and I saw Bob Scanlon do the same thing about twenty feet away,’ wrote Bullard. ‘A huge shell burst about where he was, leaving a crater with the dead and wounded and bits of human bodies strewn around it. I thought Bob’s must be one of them, for he was nowhere in sight.’ Bullard, unable to find even a shred of Scanlon’s clothing, abandoned the search for his friend. Near the bomb crater, a boy with a paralysed arm screamed for his mother. The woman, Bullard wrote,
lay cut in half as if by a guillotine, her hand still clutching a piece of chicken. The crippled lad jumped up and down shrieking. He went into a convulsion as I tried to comfort him. I put my hand on his shoulder to take him with me–where, I don’t know–but the poor little thing jerked away in terror and his eyes actually crossed and uncrossed … Still crying, I pushed on in the hope of fighting the enemy that causes such horrors.
An unusual route had brought Eugene Jacques Bullard from his birth-place, Columbus, Georgia, in 1895 to the Battle of France in 1940. His parents were of mixed African-Creek Indian heritage, and his father had been born a slave at the beginning of the Civil War. When Eugene was 6 years old, his mother died. His father supported his six children working as a labourer. When a foreman struck him with an iron grappling hook, William Bullard made the mistake of fighting back. A white mob rode out to the family cabin that night to lynch him, but the terrified children convinced the men their father was away. The drunken racists swore to return. ‘This near lynching of his father,’ wrote one of Bullard’s biographers, Craig Lloyd, ‘was the traumatic event that led young Bullard to leave home sometime later.’
Bullard was ten years old when he ran away. At first, he travelled with a gypsy family and worked with horses. A year later, he stowed away on a tramp steamer to Hamburg. When the captain discovered the youngster on board, he gave him £5 and dropped him in Glasgow. Bullard found odd jobs and, in Manchester, became a professional boxer. A twenty-round match with Georges Forrest in 1913 brought him to Paris. After winning the decision, he stayed in Paris as a boxer and sparring partner. He loved the city. ‘There never was any name-calling like “Nigger”,’ he wrote in his unpublished memoirs. ‘It seemed to me that the French democracy influenced the minds of both white and black Americans there and helped us all to act like brothers as nearly as possible.’ Two months after France went to war with Germany in 1914, on Bullard’s nineteenth birthday, he repaid the people who had treated him as an equal by joining the French Foreign Legion. Among the Americans in his unit was Bob Scanlon. They were posted to the Somme, where Bullard fought as a machine gunner. He was wounded and commended for bravery. So many Legionnaires were killed in 1914 and 1915 that the survivors were transferred to the 170th Infantry Regiment. For many months from late February 1916, the 170th resisted the German mass offensive that became the Battle of Verdun. In one engagement, Bullard sustained shrapnel wounds to his head. In another, a shell ripped open his leg. He won the Croix de Guerre and was invalided from the army. After six months’ recovery in Lyons, he returned to Paris and applied to the French Army’s air corps.
Bullard qualified as a pilot in May 1917, winning a bet with a Southern white friend that he could do it. He took advanced combat flight training along with other American volunteers at Avord. The Americans formed what became the Lafayette Escadrille. As each pilot qualified, he was sent into action. But some trainees who started school after Bullard left before he did. A friend confided to Bullard that an American in Paris was pressuring the French to prevent American blacks from flying in the war. Dr Edmund Gros, the director of the American Hospital of Paris, was responsible for the welfare of Americans in the Lafayette Escadrille and the American Ambulance Corps. Bullard had already noticed how Dr Gros distributed the cheques from a fund that wealthy Americans in Paris had established for the American pilots: ‘I was always the first in Dr. Gros’ office. But the dear doctor would never give me my check until after the whole crowd received theirs and the banks were closed for the day, so I could not cash mine.’ When Bullard threatened to write to the Inspector General of the Schools of Aviation about being passed over for a combat assignment, he was finally sent to the front. His comrades in the Escadrille gave him a party to celebrate, and someone confided that ‘a certain person in Paris in the Ambulance Corps … had done everything he could to keep me from becoming the first Negro military flyer for no reason except that he didn’t like my color’. The ‘certain person’, Dr Gros, had failed.
Bullard flew his first combat mission in September 1917 with the motto ‘All Blood Runs Red’ painted on his plane. He flew more than twenty missions, most over the Verdun front, and had one confirmed downing of a German plane. The squadrons in which he served, the N-93 and N-85, acknowledged his bravery. His plane took bullets from German ground fire and fighter planes, but he always made it back to base. When the American Army Air Corps arrived in France that autumn, the other 266 American pilots in French service became the US 103rd Pursuit Squadron. Bullard was the only pilot excluded. He was also the only black.
Dr Gros took matters further when, using a dispute that Bullard had with a white colonial officer who refused to return his salute, he influenced the French to dismiss him from their air corps. Bullard was reassigned to his old regiment, the 170th Infantry, as a non-combatant for the last ten months of the war. In May 1918, the French government issued scrolls of gratitude to all American pilots who had flown for France. Dr Gros, delegated to make the presentation, gave scrolls to every flyer except Bullard.
Dr Gros was not alone in his opinion that African-Americans should not be sent into battle against white soldiers. US Army commanders prevented troops of the all-black 15th Infantry Regiment from serving at the front with the American Army. The Harlem Hellfighters, as they were called, were put under the command of General Henri Gouraud in the French Fourth Army. The French did not believe in segregated units and were grateful to combatants of any colour. The Hellfighters became the 369th Regiment and spent more time under continuous fire, 191 days, than any other unit of American soldiers. They ceded no ground, and none surrendered. They were the first regiment to reach the River Rhine, and they collectively earned the Croix de Guerre for valour. At war’s end, however, General Pershing did not permit them, or their popular regimental band under James Reese Europe, to participate in the Allies’ victory march through Paris. Many of the demobilized African-American doughboys, unsurprisingly, stayed in Paris rather than return to the land of Jim Crow and lynching.
The army discharged Bullard in October 1919 at the end of a distinguished tour of duty that included the rare achievement of service in the Foreign Legion, the regular army and the air corps. He had also been awarded the Légion d’Honneur, the Médaille Militaire, Croix de Guerre, Croix du Combattant Volontaire de la Guerre and many other medals for bravery and for his wounds. There was no decoration for being the first black combat pilot and the only African-American to fly for any army in the Great War.
Peacetime proved more eventful for Bullard than war. Back in Paris, he returned to boxing but also took up the drums in one of the increasingly popular jazz bands. Montmartre became home to new jazz ensembles and to the demobilized black American soldiers who elected not to return to the United States. Some had played in James Reese Europe’s famous Harlem Hellfighters’ orchestra. Bullard became artistic director at Joe Zelli’s nightclub in Montmartre after helping the Italian to obtain the first Parisian licence to open after midnight. He booked some of the finest jazz talent in the world to play at Zelli’s.
In 1923, Bullard married Marcelle Eugénie Henriette Straumann, daughter of a rich industrialist and his aristocrat wife. To Bullard’s delight, the Straumann parents welcomed him into their family. Eugene and Marcelle had three children, a son who died in infancy of pneumonia and two daughters, Jacqueline and Lolita. In 1928, Bullard bought his own Montmartre club, Le Grand Duc, at 52 rue Pigalle. It became the centre of a jazz age scene that drew the likes of the Prince of Wales and Ernest Hemingway to Bullard’s champagne-laden table. Bullard hired Ada Smith, whose red hair earned her the name ‘Bricktop’, to sing. He also gave Langston Hughes, then a struggling young poet, work as a dishwasher. This was an exciting time in Montmartre, when jazz lovers could hear trumpeter Arthur Briggs in one club and celebrated pianist Henry Crowder in another. Eugene Bullard dominated the Parisian scene as impresario, restaurateur and benefactor of Americans in need. Clarinettist Sidney Bechet, who played in the club and became Bullard’s friend, wrote:
If someone needed help, he did more than any Salvation Army could with a whole army; and what he wanted to do for himself, he could do in a smooth, smart way. He’d made himself the kind of man people had a need for. The cabarets, the clubs, the musicaners–when there was some trouble they couldn’t straighten out by themselves, they called on Gene. He was a man you could count on.
Bullard opened another club, L’Escadrille, at 5 rue Fontaine, and a gym, Bullard’s Athletic Club, at 15 rue Mansart in Pigalle. Marcelle wanted him to give up his Montmartre life and become a country gentleman. ‘Like most American men,’ Bullard wrote, ‘who aren’t sissies, I could not stand the idea of being a gigolo even to my wife. So I told her she could lead the life of a full-time society woman if she liked but to count me out during working hours because I was not going to give up earning my living. Soon we were seeing so little of each other that we decided to part company.’ She may have wearied of the occasional scars he carried home from fights in and out of the clubs, as well as of his all-night hours. They divorced in 1935, and he was awarded custody of their two daughters.
In early 1939, a new French intelligence service, created three years earlier within the Ministry of the Interior to monitor the 17,000 Germans in Paris, recruited Bullard as an agent. An ancien combattant with an impeccable war record, fluent in French and speaking good German, the nightclub and gymnasium owner was an ideal spy. So many Germans flocked to his gym and club that he was bound to hear something. His police handler, Georges Leplanquais, assigned a 27-year-old Alsatian woman, Cleopatre ‘Kitty’ Terrier, to work with him. Fluent in German, French and English, she had loyalty that was beyond doubt–the Germans had murdered her father during their wartime occupation of Alsace. Gene and Kitty were a good team. When Germans dropped into Le Grand Duc, Bullard was always nearby.
Of course, they figured, no Negro could be bright enough to understand any language except his own, much less figure out the military importance of whatever they said in German. So, as the Nazis talked together at my tables and I served them, they were not at all careful about discussing military secrets within my hearing. These I promptly passed on to Kitty, who could slip unnoticed out of the bar, if need be, and pass along everything important to headquarters.
French intelligence recruited another prominent African-American, Josephine Baker, who passed along information on German clients at the theatres and nightclubs where she sang. When war came in September 1939, Paris was blacked out at night. This finished the nightclub business in Montmartre, and many of its more famous musical residents–including singer and club owner Ada ‘Bricktop’ Smith –left. Bullard closed his nightclub and gym. A wealthy American woman, June Jewett James, offered him work as a major domo and a home for his daughters at her chateau in Neuilly. While there, he sent Kitty Terrier any important information he heard from Mrs James’s visitors. At one formal party, Bullard wore his full dress army uniform with medals. Among the guests was Dr Edmund Gros, who said, ‘Bullard, I didn’t know you had the Médaille Militaire.’ Bullard shot back, ‘I thought you kept all my records just as you keep the scroll issued me by the French government as it was to every member of the Flying Corps.’
When the curfew was relaxed to midnight in February 1940, Bullard went back to Paris and reopened Le Grand Duc. In late May, the Germans launched their blitzkrieg of the Low Countries and cut through France at shocking speed. Kitty Terrier warned him, ‘Now, get out of Paris as fast as you can.’ Bullard knew that his skin colour would make him a target for Nazis, who were even more race-obsessed than the white ‘crackers’ he had grown up with in Georgia. They might also discover he was working for French intelligence. The Germans interned African-American jazz musicians, despite their status as neutrals, as they found them in their advance on Paris. Trumpeter Arthur Briggs was sent to a camp at Saint-Denis, where he formed a twenty-five-member classical orchestra. Bullard agreed to leave Paris as Kitty asked, but not to escape the Nazis. He went to fight them, as he had from 1914 to 1918. Bullard asked Kitty to care for his daughters and keep an eye on his apartment. Kitty helped him to pack the food and books he was carrying on his back when he walked from Chartres to Le Mans on 14 June 1940, just as the Germans were occupying Paris.
In Le Mans that hot summer afternoon, Bullard tried to fill his empty canteen with water, but he could not get to the town pump through the crowd fighting for a drink. The next morning, he found the 51st Infantry Regiment in Orleans. The commanding officer greeted him, ‘Bullard! Is it really you?’ Major Roger Bader had been Bullard’s lieutenant in the 170th Regiment at Verdun. Bullard’s memoirs recorded the events that followed:
Major Bader assigned me to a machine gun company and ordered me to install machine guns on the left bank of the Loire River opposite German infantry on the right bank and to take charge of a section. We managed to hold the Germans back until midnight. Then they brought their artillery to within three miles of the city on the right bank. French resistance became non-existent and we were ordered to retreat.
The Germans bombarded Orléans and set it on fire. Thanks be to God, the wind was blowing from east to west. This saved Orléans, and one of the world’s finest cathedrals.
The Germans shelled Orleans for two days, occupying Joan of Arc’s city on 17 June–when Maréchal Pétain asked Germany for an Armistice. The soldiers of the 51st fought well in retreat, although their high command had already chosen to abandon the struggle. A hundred miles south of Orleans at Le Blanc on 18 June, the regiment took heavy German artillery fire. Bullard was running across the street with a light machine gun, when a shell blast killed eleven of his comrades and injured sixteen more. Bullard was hurled against a wall, smashing vertebrae in his back. Hot shrapnel burned his forehead above the right eye.
Nursing his wounds, Bullard was told by other soldiers that Charles de Gaulle had broadcast an appeal that day from London. ‘I, General de Gaulle,’ the troops heard him say, ‘currently in London, invite the officers and the French soldiers who are located in British territory or who would come there, with their weapons or without their weapons, I invite the engineers and the special workers of armament industries who are located in British territory or who would come there, to put themselves in contact with me. Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished.’ Bullard wanted to fight on with the regiment or join de Gaulle in London, but he was in no condition to do either.
The 51st Regiment’s medical unit was in disarray, so Major Bader, as he testified later, ordered Bullard ‘to take advantage of an open route to Bordeaux, to leave my unit, and I gave him, on June 19th, 1940, a safe conduct pass’. Bordeaux was not yet occupied, and the American Hospital of Paris had established a field station on the way to Bordeaux at Angoulême. Bullard walked and hitch-hiked all day and night until he found the hospital. ‘By the time I got to Angoulême,’ Bullard wrote, ‘I was about done with pain … Wounded men were lying all over the place, on floors and everywhere. Again God was with me. The doctor on duty was an old friend, Dr. H. C. De Vaux, physician to the 170th Regiment when I was in it at Verdun.’ De Vaux bandaged him, gave him pain killers and advised him, as a wounded black American who fought for France, to leave the country before the Germans found him. With a canteen of water and ‘six boxes of sardines’ from Dr Vaux, Bullard began walking again. He slept that night on the side of a road. In the morning, a French soldier took pity on Bullard and gave him his bicycle. ‘I made such good time that I decided to bypass Bordeaux and keep on to Biarritz near the Spanish border.’
At four o’clock on the morning of Saturday, 22 June, Bullard cycled up to the American Consulate in Biarritz to apply for a passport. Other Americans were already there, waiting for the consulate to open. Bullard took a place in the queue and lay on the ground to sleep. Consul Roy McWilliams arrived early and saw each American in turn. When Bullard came in dressed as a French soldier, McWilliams said, ‘Better get out of that uniform. Forty German officers dined at my hotel last night.’ Other Americans waiting behind Bullard asked him to hurry. ‘I’m trying to save this soldier from the Germans,’ McWilliams admonished them. ‘If you can’t wait, go away.’ He asked if any of them had clothes for Bullard. One man gave him a pair of trousers and another a shirt. A little boy asked his father, ‘Daddy, can I give the nigger my beret?’
The man reprimanded his son for saying ‘nigger’, but Bullard told him, ‘Your child only repeated what he hears at home. It would be nicer if you’d teach him to say “colored man”.’
McWilliams asked to see Bullard’s passport. ‘I told him I had never had one. Before the First World War, an American could travel without a passport.’ To verify his citizenship, the Consul asked Bullard where he was born. ‘Columbus, Georgia, October 9, 1894, sir,’ Bullard answered.
‘Bullard, what river flows through Columbus?’
‘The Chattahoochee, sir.’
‘What’s the name of the town across the bridge from Columbus?’
‘If you turn right, Phenix City. If you turn left, Girard, Alabama.’
‘That’s good enough for me. I know Columbus. But it’s not good enough for Washington. Wait over there.’
Fortunately for Bullard, two prominent members of the American community in Paris, Colonel James V. Sparks and R. Crane Gartz, came to the consulate and vouched for him. McWilliams approved Bullard’s passport, but he had no authority to issue it. He told Bullard to go to the consulate in Bordeaux. Bullard cycled there through the night and most of the next morning. Consul Henry Waterman was helpful, advancing him $30 and issuing him a passport. At five o’clock in the evening, as Bullard left the consulate, ‘My bicycle had vanished –c’est la guerre–so I did unto someone as someone did unto me and just rode off south on another bike.’ He returned to Biarritz. Charlie Levy, a friend from Paris, who was driving ambulance loads of Americans to the Spanish border, offered Bullard a lift. On 12 July, Bullard left Lisbon harbour with more than seven hundred other Americans and their dependants on the liner Manhattan bound for New York.