Bullard during World War I.


Who was the first Afro-American fighter pilot in history? Don’t worry if you don’t know – hardly anyone else knows either. But this is just part of the remarkable story of a heroic and multi-talented man who deserves to be much better known.

Eugene Jacques Bullard was born in Columbia, Georgia, in 1895, one of ten children. His father was descended from slaves in Haiti and his mother was a Native American from the Creek tribe. As such the family were natural targets for the racist attacks then common in the Deep South.

When his father narrowly avoided a lynching (his brother was later hanged by white men in a dispute over a piece of land), young Eugene went on the run around Georgia and eventually stowed away on a freighter bound for Scotland.

He went to London, did some boxing and worked in a slapstick music hall troupe called the Freedman Piccaninnies. After a boxing trip to Paris, he decided to stay, feeling at home there. He soon spoke fluent French and also picked up German.

When the First World War began, he joined the French Foreign Legion, whose troops bore the brunt of the fighting on the Western Front; more than half of his 170th Infantry Regiment of 21,000 men were killed in the single year of 1915. Bullard, then a corporal machine gunner, was seriously wounded at Verdun early in 1916 and invalided out of the Army. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre and several other honours for bravery.

Later that year, despite his wounds, he qualified as a pilot. He was just too late to join the famous elite flying group, Lafayette Espadrille, set up by American pilots to help the French when the US joined the war. Instead, he joined the French Flying Corps, which included French and American pilots. Later all the pilots became part of the US Air Service - all but one, that is. Bullard was excluded because he was black.

Undeterred, he joined a group called the Lafayette Flying Circus and flew more than 20 missions and reportedly shot down two German planes, ending the war as a French national hero with a total of 15 medals.

He then worked as a jazz drummer in Paris and eventually opened his own nightclub, called L’Espadrille, which became popular with French and American celebrities, including Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker, Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, who included a vignette of Bullard as a jazz drummer in The Sun Also Rises.

He married a wealthy French woman, with whom he had two daughters. They stayed with Bullard when the couple were divorced.

When the Germans occupied Paris in World War 2, the French government asked Bullard to spy on German officers who frequented the club; he never let the officers know that he could speak fluent German. There are parallels here with Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in the film Casablanca.

Bullard volunteered for the French infantry, even though he was in his 40s, and was again badly wounded in the battle of Orleans. After the war he returned to the United States for lengthy hospital treatment and to seek any work he could find. No one there had heard of him or his heroic exploits.

He managed to get enough compensation from the French government for the bombing of his Paris club to buy a flat in Harlem. By then his two daughters had married and gone away and he was left alone with his medals and his memories.

But he was still a legendary figure to the French. In 1954 he was invited back to Paris to light the flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, an event that went unreported in the American Press. When General De Gaulle, then President of France, visited the US in 1959, he asked to meet Bullard. The White House had never heard of him but finally discovered him in New York - working as a lift operator. The General went to see him there and invested him as a Chevalier, or knight, of France, the country’s highest honour.

Two years later Bullard died at the age of 66 and his story seemed to die with him. Eventually the US Air Force made some amends for their earlier rejection by making Bullard an honorary 2nd Lieutenant and a statue of him as an aviator was put up in his native Georgia. By then he had been dead for more than half a century.

When noise can kill

Another question: which is the noisiest country in the world? The answer, surprisingly, is Spain, which vies with Japan year after year for this dubious honour, decided by an international body of scientists known as the Institute of Global Hearing.

The worst form of noise pollution is road traffic, followed by trains and aeroplanes. Long Mediterranean evenings with bars and restaurants open after midnight and playing loud music add to the number of decibels pounding against people’s ears, as do the crackers and fireworks the Spanish love to explode.

The European Environment Agency now lists noise as the second most serious threat to public health after air pollution. Areas with a high decibel count are blamed for heart attacks and nervous disorders. According to El Pais, 16,000 premature deaths and 72,000 hospital admissions are related every year to excessive noise.

The European Heart Journal has shown how long-term exposure to traffic and aircraft noise increases heart disease. A five-year study of 500 adults found that for every 5 decibel increase in average noise over 24 hours, there was a 34 per cent increase in heart attacks and strokes.

An American

One would never guess any of this from the peaceful times in which we have been living in recent weeks and months, with road, train and air traffic massively curtailed and restaurants only partly open. One can even listen to birdsong, pause to enjoy the garden and look at the sky.

Having enjoyed these benefits, we should all support a campaign for more bicycles, quieter road surfaces, lower speeds, fewer flights and restrictions on building hours. It’s what human minds and bodies really need. Such reforms would be a great legacy of the lockdown. Or am I just crying for the moon? As usual.