The incredible story of Eugene Bullard: the world’s first Afro-American fighter pilot
Born in Columbus, Georgia on the 9th of October 1895, Eugene Bullard was the 7th of 10 children to his father William Octave Bullard and mother Josephine “Yokalee” Thomas. While his father hailed from Martinique, his mother was an indigenous woman of the Creek tribe with whom Eugene’s father’s people sought refuge after leaving the Caribbean.
In 1912 Eugene’s mother died and after witnessing the near lynching of his father, Eugene fled to Norfolk, Virginia where he stowed away upon the German freighter Marta Russ and sailed to Aberdeen in Scotland, where he hoped to escape the racial discrimination so prominent in the United States. After arriving In Aberdeen Bullard made his way to Glasgow, where he started boxing and performing slapstick with the ‘Freedman Pickaninnies’, a famous African-American troupe. Whilst with the ‘Freedman’ troupe Eugene trained to box with the famous boxer Dixie Kid. Kid then arranged for Eugene to box in Paris. Whilst there Eugene fell in love with France and decided to call Paris his home, where he continued to box and worked in a music hall.
On the 19th of October, 1914, at the outbreak of the First World War, Eugene joined the French foreign legion. He was assigned to 3rd marching regiment as foreign national volunteers could only enlist with the foreign legion.
After many battles Eugene and his fellow legionnaires were serving alongside the 170th infantry nicknamed ‘les hirondelles de la mort’ or in English, ‘the swallows of death’ . Eugene was transferred to that regiment as they allowed American nationals and foreigners who lived in metropolitan France to serve with them. The regiment also had a reputation as crack troops.
In 1916 after heavy fighting in the battle of Verdun where Bullard was cited for acts of valour, at the orders of the regiment he was awarded la Croix de guerre on the 3rd of July 1917 .
But back in March 1916 during the battle of Verdun Bullard had been severely wounded. While recovering from his injury he volunteered for the French air service on the 2nd of October 1916, for whom he trained as an air gunner and eventually as a pilot. Bullard completed this training earning his pilot licence number – 6950. Eugene had hoped to join the famous Lafayette Escadrille N.124 but as they had already recruited 38 American pilots in the summer of 1916 the Escadrille was no longer taking applicants.
However, the Lafayette Flying corps was taking on pilots. On the 15th of November 1916, along with 269 American aviators, the Lafayette Flying corps flew with French pilots in various squadrons as the Lafayette corps was not a unit as itself. It was during this period that Eugene earned his nom de guerre ‘L’hirondelle de la mort noir’, or, ‘the black swallow of death’ (which is a call back to his previous service in the 170th infantry regiment) after flying 20 combat missions and being credited with 2 kills – that went on uncredited as his victories could not be confirmed by the French military authorities.
When the United states entered the conflict Bullard and many other Lafayette pilots went to volunteer for the air service of the American expeditionary forces but despite having passed his medical he was turned down, being black, and denied the chance to serve in this way. Only white pilots were accepted.
Whilst on leave from the French air service Bullard argued with a commissioned officer and was punished by being transferred to service battalion of the 170th infantry where he continued to serve until he was discharged on the 24th of October 1919, almost a year after the armistice.
Eugene Bullard was also awarded Medaille militaire, la Croix du combatant volontaire 1914-1918, medial de Verdun and many other awards for his actions during the conflict.
Bullard stayed in France after the war and worked as a jazz drummer in various acts and clubs throughout Paris. He also toured in Alexandria, Egypt as a boxer and jazz ensemble drummer. In between, Eugene worked as a masseur and managed a few night clubs in Montmartre. In 1923 he married a French woman, but they divorced in 1935 and Eugene had custody of their two children.
In September 1939, as Eugene spoke German he was asked to spy on Nazi sympathisers living in Paris who often frequented his night club.
In May 1940 Nazi Germany had invaded France and Eugene volunteered yet again to defend his adopted homeland and served in the defence of Orleans with the 51st infantry but was wounded in action. In June 1940 he fled to neutral Spain and returned to America by July where he stayed at a New York hospital but never fully recovered from his wound. Eugene found that the fame he enjoyed in France hadn’t followed him back to America. He worked many jobs but was severely restricted due to his back injury. In 1945 he tried to regain ownership of his nightclub in Paris but it was unfortunately destroyed during the war. The French government sent him a financial settlement which he used to buy an apartment in Harlem.
In 1949 Bullard was attacked after the Peekskill riots; this was caught on film and can be seen today in the 1970 documentary ‘The Tallest Trees in our Forest’, and the Oscar winning documentary ‘Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist’. Many of Bullard’s assailants were law enforcement officials.
By the 1950s Bullard’s daughters had married and he lived alone in his Harlem apartment with his 15 medals and the pictures of his famous friends, while working as an elevator operator in the Rockefeller Center. Bullard returned to France in 1954 as he was selected to relight the flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
In 1958 French President Charles de Gaulle visited the United states. De Gaulle asked President Eisenhower if he could meet with Bullard, to which the American authorities had no idea who ‘Eugene Jacques Bullard’ (as he was known as in France) was. Only after tracking down the L’hirrondel de la mort noire, who was now working as an elevator attendant, did Bullard’s story come to light in America. He was eventually asked to do an interview on NBC’s Today Show by Dave Garroway in 1959 after being awarded the Chevalier de la legion D’honneur, France’s highest military and civil medal.
Eugene died of stomach cancer on 12th of October, 1961, at the age of 66. He was buried with full French military honours in Flushing Cemetery in New York City.
It was only on the 23rd of August, 1994, that Bullard was posthumously commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant by the US Air Force which would have allowed him to become a fighter pilot in his native country – 77 years to the day after they turned him down because of the colour of his skin.
In 2019 a short 11-minute film was made about Eugene’s life entitled “All Blood Runs Red”. This poignant title was what he had written on his plane as a personal insignia.
“Un veritable hero Français” – Charles de Gaulle, on Eugene Bullard.