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Uncle Sam Doesn’t Want You

The idealistic fliers of the Lafayette Escadrille and the Lafayette Flying Corps are right up there on our list of principled heroes. They nobly fought for France against the German invaders before the U.S. entered WWI, and there were plenty of Dartmouth alumni and students in the groups, including some who died in the effort. The men who fought in the two formations are memorialized in a suburb of Paris, as well as in the Place des Etats-Unis in the 16th arrondissement.

However the squadron’s history is not without its bittersweet moments, as Alex Blumrosen ‘82 pointed out to me. Alex, who works as an attorney in Paris, is the President of the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Foundation, a private organization that maintains the Escadrille’s monument in the Paris suburb of Marnes-la-Coquette, near Versailles.

Eugene BullardB.jpgThe Lafayette Flying Corps of the French Army had in its ranks a much-decorated African American pilot, Eugene Bullard, who came to France to escape racism in America, fell in love with the country, and enlisted to fight for his newfound home in the First World War. He first served as a machine gunner in the French Army’s 170th Infantry Regiment (“The Swallows of Death”), with whom he was wounded fighting at Verdun.

After his recovery, he trained as an air gunner and as a pilot with the French Air Service. In November 1916 he joined the Lafayette Flying Corps, the designation used by the French for the American pilots fighting in their various units. He flew twenty missions in 1917 (the motto on his plane was Tout le Sang qui coule est rouge! — All Blood Runs Red).

The United States entered the Great War on April 6, 1917, and during that summer a medical board reviewed the records of Americans flying for the French. A great many men switched from fighting for France; they joined the U.S. Army Air Service, but Bullard was not among them. At that time, only white pilots were allowed to serve. The racism that Bullard had sought to flee had followed him to France.

Eugene Bullard died in New York City in 1961 at the age of 66, and his body lies in the French War Veterans’ section of Flushing Cemetery in Queens, New York.

On August 23 1994, seventy-seven years after the American medical board should have allowed him to fly for the United States, Bullard posthumously received his commission as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force.

Addendum: That Eugene Bullard is considered to have been America’s first black combat pilot is a reflection of our curious attitudes towards race. In fact, while his father was an African American by adoption (he was born in the French colony of Martinique in the Caribbean), his mother was a full-blooded Cherokee. As such, Bullard can equally be referred to in American history as the nation’s first American Indian flier. It is curious that he is never described in this way.


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