First Black Fighter Pilot Soared to New Heights
Photo courtesy of DVIDS.
How does America’s first Black fighter pilot wind up fighting for the French in WWI and then returning home to obscurity? It’s the story of Eugene Jacques Bullard, a highly decorated war hero from Columbus, Georgia, who was flying planes decades before the Tuskegee Airmen. He was honored by French President Charles de Gaulle and was friends with famous people like Louis Armstrong. Despite this, his incredible life of service went largely unnoticed in America until well after the war.
Eugene was born in 1895. His grandfather was a slave and multiple biographers agree he left home on his own as a child after witnessing his father’s near lynching. He stowed away on a ship to the U.K. and ended up in London, earning a living as a boxer and entertainer. By 1913, he had 42 professional fights under his belt and was living in Paris.
Fast forward a year and WWI had begun. Being an American, Eugene joined the French Foreign Legion in 1914 as other American expats did at the time. He fought in the trench war at Champagne and Verdun, was wounded three times, and kept coming back to fight. By March 1916, he was seriously injured and removed from the battlefield. He lost most of his teeth and had a hole in his thigh from artillery shell. Doctors told him he might not walk again.
For his service and sacrifice, he earned France’s highest honors, including a Croix de Guerre and a Medaille Militaire. When he was deemed too injured for infantry combat and issued a medical discharge, he insisted on a transfer to the French Air Service. When the U.S. entered the war, he attempted to fly for the U.S. Air Service, but Black pilots were banned at the time. Not only was he blocked from joining, but American military leaders also tried to ban him from flying with France.
The odds were stacked against him, but Eugene had always been a fighter. Despite injuries and racial bias, he became a decorated soldier and pilot in France, where he was known as the Black Sparrow of Death.
After the war, he ran successful nightclubs in Paris that attracted American writers including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Langston Hughes. He mentored jazz musicians Sidney Bechet and Ada “Bricktop” Smith, among others. He operated a gym, as well.
Because Eugene spoke English, French, and German he was recruited to help the French Resistance as a spy during WWII. He overheard valuable information at his nightclub. When the Germans invaded France in 1940, his friends were able to whisk him back to the U.S. via Spain.
It had been more than three decades since Eugene had been home. He settled in New York, working at the Staten Island shipyards. In 1954, French President Charles de Gaulle invited Eugene to light the torch at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe. At the time, he was working as an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center. For his service in both WWI and WWII, France named him Chevalier de la Legion D’Honneur in 1959.
When French President Charles de Gaulle visited the U.S. in 1960, he inquired about French hero Eugene Bullard. The FBI had to locate him for a quick meeting with de Gaulle. After this meeting, Eugene caught the attention of national media and was invited to appear on The Today Show on NBC, in the same building where he operated the elevator!
Sadly, Eugene died from cancer in 1961. He was buried in Flushing, New York, in the Federation of French War Veterans Cemetery.
This unsung hero was posthumously named Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force in 1994. In 2019, the Air Force dedicated a statue of Eugene Bullard at the Museum of Aviation at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, his home state. Several of his descendants were in attendance.
Eugene Bullard took himself to new heights in the face of racial violence, poverty, and combat injuries. He fought for freedom wherever he went — and wrote his own destiny as an American hero across borders.
Clavin, Tom and Keith, Phil, All Blood Runs Red: The Legendary Life of Eugene Bullard – Boxer, Pilot, Soldier, Spy. (New York: Hanover Square Press, 2019).
Harris, Henry S., All Blood Runs Red: Life and Legends of Eugene Jacques Bullard – First Black American Military Aviator. (Melbourne: eBookIt, 2013)
Salter, Krewasky A., Combat Multipliers: African American Soldiers in Four Wars. (Kansas: Combat Studies Institute Press, Fort Leavenworth, 2003).
Photo courtesy of DVIDS.