No Place For You Here, Boy

I used to make business trips to Reston, Virginia, just outside Washington D.C. One Saturday, I drove the rented car to the Metro station at West Falls Church (it was still there when I got back, remarkably) and took the train to the city centre to visit the Smithsonian Museums. There was a special exhibition about the First World War in the National Air & Space Museum.

Two things struck me particularly. The first was that the USA did not have the technological capacity to field competitive fighter aircraft. Throughout the entire involvement of the US Army Air Service in combat, their front line squadrons were equipped only with French and British planes. What a contrast with the times of only a generation later, when the USA was unquestionably the greatest technological and economic power in the world.

Eugene Jacques BullardThe other point of interest for me was the Lafayette Flying Corps, the French air force squadrons composed of ex-patriate American pilots. Before the USA joined the war, these volunteers fought on the Allied side and gained a reputation for bravery. Not to mention drinking and whoring.

But the reason it stuck in my mind was what happened when the USA did enter the war in 1917, and the corps transferred en bloc to the US Army Air Service. All the experienced combat pilots were immediately commissioned as US officers. Except one. Despite having been awarded the Croix de Guerre for his services in the French forces, Eugene Bullard had a characteristic that prevented his becoming an American pilot or officer. He was black.

Bullard remained in France after the war and eventually ran a nightclub in Paris. At the start of the Second World War he was reporting on German agents who frequented his club (he spoke German). With the German invasion in 1940, Bullard attempted to take his two daughters to safety, but became involved in the fighting in the defence of Orléans, where he was seriously wounded, but the family was helped to escape to Spain, and then to New York.

Both his notable war careers were ignored by the American authorities, but he was recognised in France as a war hero and in 1959 became a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur. He was still living in poverty in America though. He died in 1961.

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