LIMA — The older, bespectacled black man looked every bit the elevator operator, except his uniform, emblazoned with “Rockefeller Center” across the left pocket, was festooned with military medals. He always wore the medals.
“Producers of NBC’s ‘Today Show,’ headquartered in the building took notice,” author Larry Greenly wrote, and, on Dec. 22, 1959, the elevator operator sat down with host Dave Garroway to tell America “how he earned the 15 medals that he held up in a case for the camera.”
The elevator operator was Eugene James “Jacques” Bullard, who was born in Georgia 64 years earlier, and the medals he displayed had been awarded to him for service to France during World War I, Greenly wrote in his book “Eugene Bullard: World’s First Black Fighter Pilot.”
Bullard, although virtually unknown in his homeland, was revered in France where he was known as the “Black Swallow of Death,” a name which may have given some elevator riders pause.
Among the black fighter pilots to fly in Bullard’s wake was Lima’s Charles I. Williams, who fell in love with flying as an 11-year-old after a ride with a barnstormer in the late 1920s.
Williams, who was born in 1916 and whose family moved to Lima from Hagerstown, Maryland, in 1923, would go on to graduate from Central High School in 1935. After two years working at the Ohio Steel Foundry, he enrolled at UCLA to study aeronautical engineering but withdrew his junior year to accept an appointment with the Aviation Cadet Flying Training Program at Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1942. He received his wings in April 1943 and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant.
Nearly three decades before Williams and the legendary Tuskegee Airmen began compiling an exemplary record escorting U.S. bombers over Europe during World War II, Bullard was flying missions over the trenches of World War I.
Bullard was born Oct. 9, 1895, the seventh of 10 children in Columbus, Georgia, where a historical marker sums up his early life: “Bullard grew up in a small shotgun style house near this site. His father, William, was a laborer for the W.C. Bradley Company. Eugene completed the fifth grade at the 28th Street School. Shaken by the death of his mother, Josephine, and the near lynching of his father, Bullard left Columbus as a young teenager. In 1912, he stowed away on a merchant ship out of Norfolk, Virginia. He spent the next 28 years of his life in Europe.”
Greenly wrote that Bullard’s goal was to reach France, a country his father, a native of Martinique, held up as a beacon of equality.
After landing in Aberdeen, Scotland, Bullard traveled to Glasgow and then to Liverpool in England, working various jobs. At one point, Greenly wrote, Bullard worked in an amusement park. “On weekends he would stick his head through a hole in a canvas sheet in a booth and let customers throw soft rubber balls at him.” Fortunately, Greenly noted, Bullard had excellent reflexes, which served him well when he wandered into a Liverpool gym and was introduced to boxing.
In October 1913, Bullard the boxer fought a bout in Paris and fell in love. He returned as an entertainer with a troupe of black youngsters called “Freedman’s Pickaninnies” who traveled around Europe performing slapstick routines. When the troupe played Paris early in 1914, Bullard stayed behind, Greenly wrote. “He learned to speak French. And he liked France so much he even changed his middle name to Jacques, the French equivalent of James, his given middle name.”
When World War I broke out in 1914, Bullard enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. Bullard’s unit would be so decimated in battle that by late 1915 it was disbanded and Bullard was sent to join the 170th Infantry, a unit called the “Swallows of Death.” It was from this unit that Bullard adopted his nickname.
In March 1916, Bullard was injured at the Battle of Verdun, which over a 10-month period claimed 250,000 lives. While convalescing at Lyons, Bullard, now a corporal, was offered a chance to join the French Air Service. Bullard and 269 other Americans wound up in the Lafayette Air Corps in November 1916. Bullard would fly about 20 missions and is sometimes credited with shooting down one or two German planes.
When America entered the war in April 1916, members of the Lafayette Air Corps were considered for inclusion in the U.S. Army Air Service. Bullard was rejected because of his race. He spent the remainder of the war in a service battalion.
Between the wars, Bullard was a musician, club owner and celebrity in Paris. He married a Parisian society woman and they had two daughters. When World War II broke out, Bullard, who had worked briefly for French intelligence, fled France and returned to the United States and obscurity in 1940.
In 1954, the French government flew Bullard back to Paris for Bastille Day Ceremonies. “Bullard and other French war veterans relit the eternal flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” Greenly wrote. “He also placed a wreath of flowers beside the tomb under the Arc de Triomphe.”
On Oct. 9, 1959, shortly before appearing on the “Today Show,” the French consul in New York honored Bullard. “The French Consul pinned a Legion of Honor medal on Bullard’s lapel — his 15th medal — which made him a Knight of the Legion of Honor,” according to Greenly.
Bullard died Oct. 12, 1961, and was buried in a French Foreign Legion uniform with the French flag draped over his coffin in the French War Veterans Cemetery in Flushing, New York. On Sept. 14, 1994, the U.S. Air Force posthumously commissioned Bullard a second lieutenant.
Williams went on to fly 89 missions with the legendary Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. He also served during the Korean War and Vietnam, retiring from the Air Force in 1966 as a lieutenant colonel. Among his many awards were the Bronze Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters and the Congressional Gold Medal, which he donated to the Afro American-Museum at Wilberforce in 2009. He also is a member of the Lima City Schools Hall of Fame. When he died Sept. 22, 2013, at the Dayton V.A. Medical Center, the 96-year-old Williams was the oldest surviving Tuskegee Airman.
“They didn’t want a black man flying in the first place and used many ploys to keep us from flying, but we just made them eat crow,” Williams told The Lima News during a visit to Lima for a meeting of the Ohio Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen in March 2006, “We made liars out of them. We were the best.”
Reach Greg Hoersten at TLNinfo@civitasmedia.com.