Eugene Bullard (1895 – 1961) was an American pilot who served with the French in WW1. Born in Georgia, his father was an immigrant of Haitian descent from Martinique and his mother a Native American of the Muscogee nation. Bullard received only five years of school and left home at an early age. As a teenager he was boxing and playing in music halls in the UK and France. He joined the French Foreign Legion in October, 1914 and fought as a part of a machine gun team with the First Moroccan Division in Artois, Picardy and Champagne, where he was wounded. When he returned to duty he was reassigned to the regular French Army’s 170th Infantry Regiment, known as Les hirondelles noires de la mort (the black swallows of death). He was sent to Verdun where he was wounded again in March, 1916.
In October 1916, after his convalescence he applied to be an aircraft machine gunner and was accepted. He applied to serve with the Lafayette Escadrille No. 124 but was turned down on the grounds that they had too many Americans. He then joined the Lafayette Flying Corps, which wasn’t a squadron but rather a group of about 270 Americans who served individually with different French units. He took pilot training on his own and received his license from the Aéro-Club de France in May 1917.
He was finally promoted, to Corporal in July 1917 and in August the US Army Air Service invited all Americans serving with the French to transfer over. Except Bullard, that is.
Bullard spent as much time as he could in the Paris and in the company of the French Ace (43 victories) and well-known Bad Boy Capt. Charles Nungesser (1892-1927), who found that bar-hopping with Bullard served to enhance his reputation for outrageous behavior. Nungesser was the toast of Paris, and Bullard gained entré to places and levels that were not usually available to persons of color. One of the Captain’s favorite hot spots was called Chez Père Le Bas, a dingy, smoky, crowded dive that was incredibly in favor. The owner was well-known for insulting, cursing and berating all of his patrons, and the more famous they were, the worse the vitriol. This was regarded as better than a floor show, and everyone laughed uproariously.
The first time that Bullard and Nungesser went to Chez Père Le Bas they had no trouble getting in due to Nungesser’s fame, M. Le Bas simply kicked out a couple of lesser ranking officers. This was totally foreign to Bullard, whose own experience was the diametric opposite. As always, the Captain’s entrance was announced by “Vive Nungesser! Vive La France!” When the cheering died down, the proprietor turned to Bullard and began a racist tirade. Bullard (the ex-boxer) “went mad” and had to be restrained, even while the crowd was rolling in the aisles with laughter. Bullard then realized that he was just going to have to put up with this sort of treatment. But he later said that “I wished that there had been a hole in the floor so that I might have crawled into it.”
Bullard was sent to the Escadrille N.93 where he flew a Nieuport 28 for a short period before moving to the Escadrille N.85, where he flew a SPAD XIII for about three months, painting on his planes the declaration ‘All Blood Runs Red’. In November he was sent to the labor battalion of his former regiment, the 170th, to serve a punishment for an altercation with an officer in Paris while on leave. He never flew again, although he wasn’t discharged until October 1919. His aerial combat record was two probable victories.
After the war Bullard went back to playing in the Parisian night clubs. He became the manager of the popular ‘Le Grand Duc’ and later owned his own club, ‘L’Escadrille’. He married a French woman and had two children and was doing quite well until 1940, when he voluntarily returned to service in the French Army. Although his stint was brief – he was wounded in the defense of Orléans in June – but was able to make his way to Spain and then the US after the French surrender.
He settled in New York, where he had a hard time making ends meet, and his property in Paris was lost in the war. For most of the rest of his life he worked as an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center. In 1959 Charles de Gaulle’s government awarded Bullard the Légion d’honneur and the Médaille militaire, calling him ‘a true hero of France’.
And in August 1994 Bill Clinton’s government posthumously commissioned Bullard into the US Army Air Service, meaninglessly correcting the slight he had gotten in 1917, but there were some benefits due his heirs as a result of this action.
In 1972 P.J. Carisella and James W. Ryan published Bullard’s biography, titled The Black Swallow of Death: The Incredible Story of Eugene Jacques Bullard, the World’s First Black Combat Aviator. Although now out of print this book is a WW1 classic.