Serving his country in a roundabout way
A few weeks ago, we wrote how in September 1917, Arthur Gould Lee was fighting Richthofen's Flying Circus. But around this time of year, it was Eugene Bullard's turn.
It was late in the year when Eugene Bullard tried to transfer from the Lafayette Flying Corps to fly directly for the US. They were saying all US pilots flying for France would be allowed to transfer, and be promoted to officer status. So Bullard was given a physical.
The American doctors said he had flat feet, and he pointed out his flat feet had taken him all over France in the infantry already. "I added that I was now in the Air Force, and I did not fly with my feet." Then he was told he had large tonsils, so he replied that luckily, he was not an opera singer. He passed all the other tests including some, such as for color blindness, which really would matter for a pilot, and was told that he had passed everything necessary to become a pilot in the United States Army.
Bullard waited, and watched as other flyers got word of their transfer. Eventually he realized his transfer wasn't coming.
Later, I learned that in World War I, Negroes were not accepted as flyers by the United States Army.
This hurt me deeply. Then, as now, my love for my own country was strong. I got some comfort out of knowing that I was able to go on fighting on the same front and in the same cause as other citizens of the United States. And so in a roundabout way, I was managing to do my duty and to serve my country.
Le Cirque von Richthofen
Around this time, Bullard had an aerial battle with a German tri-plane which he believed resulted in the tri-plane being shot down, but also resulted in Bullard crash landing his Spad (painted with his motto "All Blood Runs Red"), with 96 bullet holes in it.
Bullard's Commandant Minard asked him if he wanted to commit suicide. "No, sir, my Commandant!" Bullard replied. "This is against my religion."
The commandant said that he was happy with the result of the battle, but had thought that Jimmy's father had been lost - "Jimmy" being Bullard's pet monkey and mascot, which Bullard called his son, and which Minard had already told him would be looked after by the squadron if Bullard was killed. Minard asked whether Bullard realized the German planes were from Richthofen's Flying Circus.
"No, sir, I did not. And, sir, you did not specify what German planes I was or was not to engage in battle."
"I don't mean to say that you are not to accept battle, but you can't realize how dangerous that group is. Their leader is von Richthofen - the Guynemer of Germany."
A century later, it seems surprising not to recognize the Flying Circus. But comparing Guynemer to Richthofen was very reasonable in late 1917. At the time of Guynemer's death in September 1917, Guynemer had 54 victories while Richthofen had 61.
"Yes, sir, and I thank you sir, for telling me. But I refuse to believe that the Boches are bullet proof. Furthermore, sir, there were four of them brought down, and we lost none."
The commandant agreed, and they all drank to the victory. The commandant toasted,
"Here's to the victorious pilots. And I would like to say to Pilot Bullard that if he expects to continue to chase or accept battles with le cirque von Richthofen, would he please will me his son, Jimmy."
"Yes, sir, it is with pride and thanks that I make this statement. In case I am shot down, my son, Jimmy, will become the adopted son of Commandant Minard."
By the end of WWI, any pilot who had even engaged the Flying Circus in battle could draw attention for his war story. But the Flying Circus is just part of a minor chapter among all the adventures of Eugene Bullard. Read the rest of his stories in Black Swallow of Death.