Bullard, Eugene 1894–1961
Eugene Bullard 1894–1961
Though many think of the famed Tuskegee Airmen of World War II as the first African American combat fighters, they were simply the first to serve in the United States military. Eugene Bullard, a Georgia-born bon vivant who spent much of his life in France, was the first African American to fly a fighter plane-though World War I-era prejudices dictated that his missions be flown for France. Remembered as the “black swallow of death” for his in-air bravery, Bullard earned several decorations from the French government for his service and stayed on in Paris after World War I, even working for the French Resistance during World War II. Bullard eventually returned to the United States and lived a more sedate existence-for a time he even worked as an elevator operator in New York City.
Bullard was born in the heart of the South in 1894. His hometown of Columbus, Georgia, was typical of the geographic region in its extreme racial tensions. As a boy Bullard was witness to lynch mobs and other signs of Ku Klux Klan violence; his brother Hector was murdered by one such gang. Sometimes the family, like others in the community, was forced to hide from bands of marauding whites, and during those sleepless nights Bullard’s father would regale the children with stories about their Martinique ancestry. On this French-held island in the Caribbean, the elder Bullard said, harmony between whites and blacks prevailed, as it did in France; all men were considered equal. Such talk inspired eight-year-old Bullard to leave home and sell his goat for $1.50, assuming that with the proceeds he could make his way to France. Instead he joined a troupe of English Gypsies that traveled through the South, from whom he learned much about horses; he eventually found work as a jockey.
During his teens Bullard hopped on a freight car to Newport News, Virginia, and from there stowed away on a German cargo ship bound for Scotland. When he was discovered, the captain first threatened to toss him overboard, but instead allowed him to work in the ship’s coal furnaces. In Scotland and later in England, Bullard earned a living through a variety of colorful jobs, such as running errands for bookies and acting as a lookout for illegal gambling operations. As he grew into an adult, he became a boxer for a time, but found the compensation not worth the aggravation. One day a musical troupe called “Freedman’s Pickaninnies” invited Bullard to accompany them to Paris, and he accepted, finally setting foot on the soil of a country whose principles had inspired him to look elsewhere for freedom from such an early age.
In 1914 longstanding tensions between neighbors Germany and France erupted in a war that would become World War I. Bullard enlisted in the French Foreign Legion, a legendary refuge of some of the world’s most
At a Glance…
F ull name, Eugene Jacques Bullard; bom October 9, 1894, in Columbus, GA; died, 1961, in New York, NY; married Marcelle Straumann, c. 1920s; children: Jacqueline Hernandez, Lolita Robinson,
Worked odd jobs in England and France prior to World War 1; enlisted in the French Foreign Legion, 1914; served in the French Army during World War 1; wounded at the Battle of Verdun, 1916, and given a medical discharge; enlisted in the French Air Service and flew several massions, 1917; became Jazz drummer and nightclub owner, Paris, France, 1920s; fought in French Army at the onset of World War II and later worked in the French Resistance; returned to United States and became perfume sales person in New York City, mid-1940s; RCA Building, New York City, elevator operator, early 1950s.
Awards; Received numerous military honors from the French government for his service during World War I, including the Legion of Honor, Croix de Guerre, and the Médaille Militaire; decorated for work In the French Resistance during Work War II; honored posthumously by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, 1994.
daring mercenary soldiers-as well as scoundrels on the lam. He was eventually transferred into the regular French Army, where he fought on the notoriously bloody battlefield of Verdun. He sustained injuries twice, but twice returned to the field. Finally French military authorities gave him a medical discharge because of his injured leg. Sitting in a Paris cafe on the Boulevard Saint Michel one day with a group that included another opinionated American, Bullard bragged that he could fly a fighter plane even with his bad leg. The American bet him a large sum of money that he couldn’t, but Bullard pulled a few strings from among his friends who were now high-ranking French military officials. He enrolled in flight training school, and, upon earning his pilot’s license, returned to the cafe and collected on the wager.
Combat aviation was a reckless pursuit in those years. The airplane itself was less than two decades old, and pilots strapped themselves into open cockpits of tiny planes that were loaded with artillery guns; Bullard’s Spad biplane was enhanced by the presence of Jimmy, a monkey he had bought in Paris. The commander of his flying regiment, the Lafayette Escadrille, often chastised him for flying behind enemy lines or making too-daring sorties in his attempts to shoot down German planes, and from this daredeviltry Bullard earned the nickname “the black swallow of death.” It is known that the pilot chalked up one kill to his outstanding record of military service, downing a German plane known as a Fokker Dreidecker. There were other American pilots in the Lafayette Escadrille fighting on the side of France; when the United States formally entered the war against Germany, the Yankees applied for transfers, and all but Bullard’s application were accepted.
The American forces also put an end to what was surely an embarrassment~an African American flying a plane for France, while back home racial prejudices held that blacks were not intelligent enough for such endeavors. The Americans pressured Bullard’s French superiors into ruling his injured leg a liability, and Bullard was grounded permanently. After the war, Bullard convinced a fellow African American to teach him how to play drums, and with his new profession became a fixture in the jazz nightclub circuit in Paris during the 1920s. He eventually owned two nightclubs as well as a gymnasium and married a French woman, but with the renewal of French-German tension in the 1930s things began to go awry for Bullard. His wife wished to relocate to the countryside, but he refused to leave Paris. She died unexpectedly, leaving him to raise their two daughters. When Nazi Germany invaded France, he became a part of the Resistance movement, an underground network that worked to undermine and sabotage both Nazi rule and French collaboration. He often eavesdropped on conversations between German military officers in both his bar and the gym-the prejudiced Germans seemed unaware that an African American could understand their language.
Eventually Bullard decided that he should return to America, and rode a bike to Portugal, where a Red Cross ship was allowing evacuees. His daughters eventually joined him, and for a time he worked as a perfume salesperson in New York City. After the war he returned to France, and attempted to recover his nightclub that had been expropriated during the chaos of the war. He received a small settlement, and in New York City worked for a time as an elevator operator at the RCA Building. In 1954 the fledgling NBC Today show discovered Bullard and his colorful past, and featured him in an interview segment. He died in Harlem in 1961, forgotten as the only African American to pilot a plane during World War I. In 1994 the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum honored Bullard, whom the Chicago Tribune called “probably the most unsung hero in the history of U.S. wartime aviation.” The chair of the aviation museum, Dom Pisano, compared Bullard’s achievements to that of the Tuskegee Airmen of the second World War, a unit created only when the War Department was threatened with a bias lawsuit. The Tuskegee unit “broke the color barrier and proved to everyone that [blacks] were the equal of white pilots, “Pisano noted. “It was rough, but Eugene Bullard was the precursor of all of them. He must have been quite a man.”
Sammons, Vivian Ovelton, Blacks in Science and Medicine, Hemisphere Publishing, 1990, p. 41.
Chicago Tribune, October 11, 1992, sec. 1, p. 30.
Ebony, December 1967, p. 120.
Los Angeles Sentinel, December 7, 1994, p. Al.
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