An American expatriate, Eugene Bullard (1895–1961) fled the United States as a teenager to escape the racism he faced at home. He landed in France and joined the French Foreign Legion. During World War I, Bullard trained as a pilot and joined the Lafayette Escadrille, becoming the world's first black military fighter pilot.
Although Eugene Bullard has the distinction of being the first African-American military pilot, he did so while fighting under the French, rather than the U.S., flag. As a teen Bullard escaped the racism then prevalent in the American South, and found acceptance in Europe, where his talents led him from the boxing ring to the trenches of Verdun and then to the cockpit of a French fighter, flying in over twenty missions during World War I.
The seventh of ten children, Eugene James Bullard was born October 9, 1895, in Columbus, Georgia. His father, William Octave Bullard, was of Haitian extraction and was born into slavery on a Georgia cotton plantation. At age 19, William married a Creek Indian girl named Josephine, and they settled in Columbus. The Muskogee—or Creek—Indians were prevalent in Georgia but lost land as European immigrants moved into the area.
Josephine Bullard kept her children segregated from the white world to shield them from racism. During the 1890s, the atmosphere was rough as Southern states passed “Jim Crow” laws that segregated public facilities. When Eugene Bullard was seven, his mother died, and he was indoctrinated into racism when he tried to play with white neighbors and was taunted and called names. As Bullard grew, his father regaled him with stories of France, a place where whites and blacks lived harmoniously. The Bullard family had ancestral ties to the French colony of Martinique, which may have spurred these conversations.
Bullard followed the railroad tracks out of Columbus and for several years wandered the South working odd jobs and saving money. For a time, he lived with English gypsies who assured him that blacks were treated better in Europe. Finally, he made his way to the Virginia coast and stowed away on a ship docked at Norfolk. He had no idea where the ship was headed. After a few days at sea, Bullard was discovered and put to work with the boiler crew. The captain set the teen ashore at Aberdeen, Scotland.
Bullard was about 16 when he arrived in Europe. He settled in Liverpool, England, where he befriended the owner of a boxing gymnasium who agreed to train him to fight. On November 9, 1911, he fought his first official pro bout—a 10-round match—against Irish boxer Bill Welsh at the Liverpool Stadium. Winning the match during a skilled contest, he impressed Aaron Lister Brown, a U.S. fighter who, known as the Dixie Kid, also boxed that night. Brown asked Bullard to join him in London so they could train together.
Bullard fought endless matches in London but yearned to get to France. On December 3, 1913, Brown scheduled Bullard for a match in Paris. Bullard took in the sights and fell in love with the city. He returned to London determined to get back to France as soon as possible. He joined a song-and-dance troupe called Freedman's Pickaninnies that was set to tour Europe and Russia. When the troupe hit Paris, Bullard left the show. By the spring of 1914, he was settled in Paris, working odd jobs, boxing, and learning the French language. He changed his middle name from James to Jacques as a show of devotion to his adopted country.
After World War I broke out, Bullard wanted to support his adopted country. As a foreigner, he could not join the French Armed Forces but could serve in the French Foreign Legion, which was filled with foreign nationals. Bullard was sworn into service on October 9, 1914, the day he turned 19. After five weeks of training, he was assigned to the Third Marching Regiment and sent to the front lines north of Paris. His regiment marched 17 days to reach the rat- and lice-infested trenches on the Somme River front, where British and French forces were battling the Germans. The fighting was brutal and relentless, with more than one million soldiers killed or wounded during the months-long Somme offensive.
Next, Bullard fought at the trenches in Artois, where hand-to-hand combat ensued. In one bloody attack, only 54 of the 250 men in his company survived. Bullard also fought in the Champagne offensive, where the French endured heavy losses. By now, the French Armed Forces had lost so many soldiers that existing regiments were struggling to survive. In late 1915, Americans in the Foreign Legion were being reassigned to the French Armed Forces, and Bullard joined the 170th Regiment. This group was so fierce that the Germans had taken to calling the 170th the “Swallows of Death.” The name stuck with Bullard, and later, as a pilot, he was often referred to as the “Black Swallow of Death.”
After joining the 170th, Bullard continued to fight in the trenches as the regiment battled to take control of villages that had fallen into enemy hands. For his work with the 170th, he earned a fourragère, a braided cord awarded to entire units for their distinguished service. Bullard also fought in the Battle at Verdun. After surviving several vicious skirmishes, he was wounded in March 1916 while trying to sneak through enemy lines and acquire supplemental guns and food for his unit. Hit by a shell and with his thigh tore open, he was evacuated to a military hospital in Lyon, France. During his recovery, Bullard received France's Croix de Guerre (Cross of War) for his heroism in helping wounded soldiers at Verdun. He also decided to leave the infantry.
In October 1916, Bullard reported to flight school in Tours, France. His initial training took place with a Blériot monoplane—a short-winged plane known as a “penguin” because it could not fly. Untrained pilots would speed it down the airfield until the tail rose up, then use the rudder pedals to maintain a straight line. Eventually, Bullard took planes into the sky and learned basic aerial maneuvers. On May 5, 1917, he was awarded pilot certificate #6950 and sent to advanced flying school at Châteauroux. He then moved on to the Avord air base, where he learned aerobatic maneuvers like rolls, corkscrews, and power dives.
After spending time at Avord, Bullard noticed that other pilots were receiving orders, yet his never came. As, Bullard learned, Dr. Edmund Gros, an American in charge of the Lafayette Escadrille, was responsible for the delay. The Lafayette Escadrille was a French Air Service unit made up of U.S. pilots, and this was not the first time that Gros had discriminated against a black pilot. Bullard brought the matter to the attention of his commanding officer and on August 5, 1917, he was ordered to report to combat flight school at Le Plessis-Belleville for the final step of combat flight training. Before Bullard was dispatched to a squadron, he was given a six-day leave. He went to Paris to visit friends and purchased a Rhesus monkey named Jimmy, who became his “co-pilot” and mascot, often hiding in Bullard's flight jacket during missions.
On April 6, 1917, the United States entered World War I. At this time, all U.S. pilots stationed in France were to be transferred into the American flying service, but first, they had to pass a physical. The U.S. doctors who examined Bullard alleged that he had flat feet and enlarged tonsils and claimed he was color blind. In the end, they passed him, but ranked him as a bottom recruit. Once again, Bullard was slighted because of his race. While others received transfer papers, his never came.
As Bullard later discovered, he could not be transferred because U.S. forces only promoted him to sergeant; U.S. pilots were required to be officers in order to be transfered to the U.S. Army Air Corps. All of the other pilots who passed the physical had been promoted to lieutenants. On November 11, 1917, Bullard was dismissed from the French Flying Service and shunted back to his old infantry unit, where his thigh injury rendered him unfit for foot combat. He was sent to a service battalion where he remained until the war ended. He also lost Jimmy the monkey, which died in the flu epidemic that swept the world in 1918.
After the war, Bullard returned to Paris and boxing, and he also discovered the jazz scene. In his spare time, he learned to play the drums and landed a job at a nightclub. After he injured his hand during a boxing match in Alexandria, Egypt, in April 1922, he quit the sport for good. Turning musician, he joined Zig-Zag, the house band at a popular nightclub owned by Italian American Joe Zelli. Zelli's all-night cabaret was the hottest nightspot in Paris. Bullard eventually became a manager at the club and hired entertainers.
On July 17, 1923, Bullard married Marcelle Eugenie Henriette Straumann, the daughter of a countess. Their first child, Jacqueline, was born in 1924, followed by Eugene Jr. in 1926 and Lolita in 1927. Tragically, Eugene Jr. died of pneumonia as an infant. To support his family, Bullard struck out on his own and bought Le Grand Duc nightclub in 1928. Le Grand Duc was already a popular nightspot for American ex-pats and African Americans. Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker, and Fats Waller played there when visiting Paris. He sold the club in the 1930s and opened a smaller venue, L’Escadrille club. He also opened Bullard's Athletic Club, which sponsored wrestling matches and offered boxing lessons, massage, whirlpool baths, and ping-pong. Bullard and his wife divorced in 1935. She died a few years later, and he gained custody of his daughters.
After World War II started and the Germans invaded Northern France, Bullard attempted to rejoin his old infantry unit. He briefly fought as a machine gunner with the 51st Infantry, but the commander feared for Bullard's life, figuring that if the Germans captured a black man they would execute him. Bullard was sent to the American consulate and evacuated to the United States. He arrived in New York City in the summer of 1940 and asked the U.S. government for help in getting his teenaged daughters out of France. Jacqueline and Lolita arrived in February 1941.
Once back on U.S. soil, Bullard discovered that, even after three decades, racism was still alive. In 1949, a police officer beat him. Bullard also got into a fistfight with a bus driver who asked him to sit in the back. He tried to regain his nightclub in France, but it had been torched during the war, so he remained in the United States.
The French continued to honor Bullard for his service to their country. In 1954, the French government brought him to Paris for Bastille Day, where he took part in a ceremony to relight the eternal flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. On October 9, 1959, he was invited to the French consulate in New York City, where he was made a knight of the Legion of Honor. The Legion of Honor medal was the 15th he had earned for service to France. In 1960, Bullard was invited to meet French President Charles de Gaulle when the head of state visited New York City.
Bullard spent his last years working as an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center. Because he frequently wore his medals on his work uniform, he was noticed by producers for the Today Show. In 1959, he appeared on the show in an interview with Dave Garroway. Two years later, Bullard fell ill with intestinal cancer and died on October 12, 1961, at a hospital in Harlem. He was buried in a French military uniform at the Federation of French War Veterans Cemetery in Flushing, New York. In 1994, the U.S. Air Force ceremonially promoted Bullard to second lieutenant, a promotion he had more than earned but that came 77 years too late. He left behind an unpublished biography, “All Blood Runs Red.”
Greenly, Larry W., Eugene Bullard: World's First Black Fighter Pilot, NewSouth Books, 2013.
Martin, Paul, Secret Heroes: Everyday Americans Who Shaped Our World, William Morrow, 2012.
American Heritage, February–March, 1995, Jamie H. Cockfield, “All Blood Runs Red,” p. S7.
Aviation History, March 2007, John H. Wilson, “‘All Blood Runs Red': Eugene Bullard Made History as the World's First Black Pilot,” p. 13.
Ebony, December 1, 1967, Mary H. Smith, “The Incredible Life of Monsieur Bullard,” pp. 120–128.
New York Daily News, February 3, 2002, Joyce Shelby, “Life of WWII Flying Ace Honored, p. 12.
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum website, https://airandspace.si.edu/ (October 12, 2010), Dominick Pisano, “Eugene J. Bullard.”❑