Hilaire du Berrier

Monday, July 12th, 2010

Hilaire du Berrier — pioneer aviator, daredevil, adventurer, writer, monarchist and spy — does not sound like a real person — or a North Dakotan:

He was born of fifth-generation Huguenot parents in 1906 at Flasher, N.D., in what was then and is now a tiny town on the prairie (pop. 300). A friend of his father was old Albert Wind-Did-Blow, whose squaw put a new pair of beaded moccasins on the tiny feet of this first white baby born in the county while uttering a prayer that the papoose would grow up to be a great warrior. His parents gave him the name Harold, which he hated and shortened to Hal. Always a contrary child, Hal du Berrier was shipped off to military school at the tender age of 11 to get straightened out, lasting until a month before graduation.

It was the beginning of the Age of Flight, and du Berrier desperately wanted to go to flying school. Instead, his mother sent him to study art. He worked as a commercial artist for a while in Chicago, but at the age of 20 he threw it all over and ran away with the circus — a flying circus.

Barnstorming around the United States, du Berrier learned how to do the loop-the-loop in a biplane before learning how to land, walked on the wings, jumped from one plane to another and hung by his toes from a rope ladder. He started his own “Du Berrier’s Flying Circus.” But in the end it was too tame, too much of the same-old same-old. What he wanted was action.

When his uncle was appointed as the U.S. representative to a commission in Paris, Hal jumped at the chance to go along for three months. In France, the bureaucrats said it would be illegal to register someone named “Hal,” because the name wasn’t on the official roster of saints. They agreed that St. Hilaire, the name of one of Napoleon’s generals, would be the closest legal match, with the appropriate saintly cachet. Now Hilaire du Berrier, he didn’t return to the United States for 16 years.

While in Paris, he learned that the Emperor Haile Selassie needed a few good men, especially aviators, to stave off the impending invasion of the Mussolini war machine. By now the transplanted American had become a committed monarchist, responsive to the call of gallantry and honor. The emperor’s army and air force (four planes) were no match for the mighty Italian juggernaut, and in 1936 du Berrier found himself in an Italian truck being driven into Addis Abba, Ethiopia, as a prisoner of war. But he was in luck. The Italian newsreel propagandists couldn’t get the camera shots quite right, and the victorious forces had to reenter the capital three times, celebrating over and over until the film was in the can. In the hubbub, du Berrier escaped on the overnight train to Djibouti.

Returning to Europe, he was relaxing at the castle of Baron Banffy at Cluj, Transylvania, when he read in a newspaper that Spanish military forces under Gen. Sanjuro were organizing to restore his hero, King Alfonso XIII, to the Spanish throne. Arriving in Spain on the ubiquitous overnight train, he promptly ran into a grave personal defect in his situation. Gen. Francisco Franco, the commander in chief desperate for aid, had accepted assistance and advisers from the Italian army. Alas, the Italians had escaped-prisoner du Barrier on their bad list. Spurned, he decided to do his bit for the king as a spy by signing up for the Communist (or so-called Loyalist) side. During the period of his one-month contract, he flew missions while making extensive notes of the types and quality of the aircraft supplied by the Soviet Union, secrets he intended to publish afterward in newspaper articles — and did. Unfortunately, he was denounced by US. Communists fighting on the Loyalist side, and was taken out to be shot. But when his name was called, higher officers decided that it would be bad form to shoot an American, since it might offend Eleanor Roosevelt and other U.S. patrons of the Communist forces. He was allowed to escape on the overnight train.

For a while du Barrier was a familiar sight in the cafes of Paris, sporting spats, cane and monocle, seen in the company of other expatriates such as Ernest Hemingway, Man Ray, Louise Bryant and Kiki of Montparnasse, and writing for the French newspapers. Then one of his flyboy buddies came with the news that there was going to be a “show” out in Asia, and he hastened there to fly for Chiang Kai-shek.

There was much to do in China, and soon du Berrier was in Japanese-occupied Shanghai running a Nationalist spy ring making covert radio transmissions to Chungking twice a day. To protect himself, he allied and trained with a supersecret alternative wing of French intelligence, a unit directed by Gen. Raul Salan, the Renseignement Guerre Numero Un. Du Barrier set the ring up in a large house in the French quarter of Shanghai and to cut expenses rented out a room on the first floor to an actress estranged from her husband. One day the actress disappeared, fled to the north, married Mao Tse-tung and became better known as Jiang Qin.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the French spirited away du Berrier’s radio and incriminating papers, but his position became more tenuous every day. Finally, the sound of heavy boots came on the stairway in the night and he was hauled away as a spy. Japanese interrogators took him to their torture chamber to make him identify the members of his spy ring. He never broke, but the torture left his face partially paralyzed, and ended his flying days.


  1. Peter Watson says:

    Hilaire was my friend of many years and I thank God I met him and saw him before he died. The world is poorer without men like him.

  2. Isegoria says:

    If you have any stories about Hilaire that you’d like to share, Peter, I’d love to hear them.

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