Hubert Julian (101928)

When we left the intrepid Hubert “The Black Eagle” Julian last week, Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries had toppled the Batista regime, leaving the new Cuban government in the midst of a Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, both with reservations about their association with the new government. Julian, as audacious as ever, knew exactly how to exploit this dilemma, and by the winter of 1960, he was in Havana.

As fate would have it—or as Julian so shrewdly calculated—he arrived just in time to bump into Castro emerging from a DC-3 cargo plane. Boldly pushing pass Castro’s security guards, he introduced himself and began explaining the urgency of his business. Castro was not alarmed, but amused and introduced Julian to his brother, Raul, and Che Guevara.

This was all Julian needed to get his deal underway, and within a few days, he and his Swiss supplier had a $30,000 contract for several planes. He immediately embarked for Rome to evaluate the planes. But just as quickly as the deal was sealed, it unraveled. A month later, Julian received a telegram informing him that the Cuban government had canceled the contract.

Julian was furious, and when he was unable to contact anybody by phone, he flew to Cuba to meet with one of the commandants. When told the deal was canceled because he had made a similar transaction with Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, Julian said he could prove that it wasn’t so, which he did by getting an affidavit from the U.S. Embassy in Havana.

All the bravado and connivance were useless, and Julian was arrested, jailed, roughed up and then deported. But the Black Eagle was never grounded very long and was soon on a mission to purchase tanks for Francois Duvalier of Haiti. He was in France when he heard about the trouble in the Congo, and, realizing there was not a pilot in the entire country, he changed his plans and wired Duvalier, asking to postpone the tank purchase.

A few days later, Julian was in Leopoldville, the Congo’s capital. But thanks to the U.S. Consulate, he lost favor with Congo Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. He returned to Harlem and patiently waiting a second chance in Africa. It came within months. This time he was on the other side of the struggle, in concert with Lumumba’s enemy, Moise Tshombe, and his breakaway Katanga region.

Julian convinced Tshombe of the need to generate publicity and informed him that he had a crew ready for the task. After several hours of food and drink, Julian had a check for $50,000 and was on his way back to Harlem to get his crew together for the project. Secretly, however, Tshombe and Julian had cooked up a deal for him to purchase armaments, which was like a godsend for Julian.

With the war raging off and on in the Congo, Julian was then dispatched to the Caribbean to round up doctors for Tshombe. Even as this deal was completed, there was still the munitions deal for his client, which amounted to an $18 million haul, one of his biggest transactions, and one that would make it easy for him and his wife, Essie, to live in luxury.

Things did not go as planned, and when he landed in the Congo, he noticed that the Katanga air force was not in charge. After a series of interrogations, Julian found himself in a terrible predicament and under arrest again.

April 23, 1962, according to Julian’s biographer, John Peer Nugent, he “was officially charged with violating Security Council resolutions pertaining to doing business with an illegal regime.” The U.N. claimed Julian had negotiated the entire $18 million arms deal. He protested the charge, insisting he was innocent.

In desperate straits, Julian wrote letters from his jail cell to President John F. Kennedy and to the diplomat Ralph Bunche, explaining his situation and asking them to intervene. It was futile. Then in July, he collapsed in his cell of an apparent heart attack. This unnerved his jailers, fearful of someone dying in their custody.

The action, whether fake or real, proved successful, and Julian was presented a letter from the U.S. Consulate and quickly put on a plane and sent back to the states.

Two years later, in 1964, he was back in the Congo. Tshombe was now president and welcomed his former business partner. Julian had brought him some pillows, not wanting him to rest his head where the previous leader had slept.

Feb 19, 1983, the fabled and often fairy-tale-like life of the Black Eagle came to an end. He was 86. Nugent’s book does not record any portion of his final years, but David Shaftel, in his profile in Air & Space magazine in 2008, fills in the last details and also notes the rivalry Julian had with another pioneering African-American pilot, John Robinson. A brief obituary of his passing appeared in these pages but mentioned very little about his amazing escapades.

“The reason that Colonel Hubert Julian’s death was unknown”, the obit disclosed, “boils down to this: His young wife didn’t like his Black Eagle reputation and when he died … she reportedly phoned the … funeral home and told them to pick up the body and bury him, but fast.”

During the last five years of his life, contrary to his often tireless nights and days of former times, the Black Eagle never stirred from his nest and was content to be comforted by the memories of daring exploits that brought fame, a quickly vanishing fortune and a legacy shrouded in myth and legend.