Eugene Bullard: The First Black Fighter Pilot
March 31, 2021
Maria Garcia Ribera
March 31, 2021
Maria Garcia Ribera
Eugene Bullard during his flight training. The Croix de Guerre with Star he received for valour during the Battle of Verdun is visible. On the left, there is the unofficial wings worn by many French pilots.
Born on the 9th of October 1895 and the seventh child of William Octave Bullard, a former enslaved Haitian man and Josephine Thomas, his Muskogee Creek mother, who died when he was only 6. Eugene was Inspired by the tales of his father and left to find the place where white people treated people of colour as human beings when he was 11.
He roamed around Georgia where he joined a group of English gipsies known as the Stanley Clan; tending and learning to race their horses. In 1909 Eugene found work with the Zachariah Turner family of Dawson, where he was allowed to ride as their jockey in horse races at the Terrell County Fair in 1911.
In 1912, at 17, he stowed away on the Marta Russ, a German merchant ship bound for Europe. He was dropped off in Aberdeen, Scotland. Between 1912-14, he performed in Belle Davis’s Freedman Pickaninnies troupe and earned money as a prize-fighter, which later led him to a boxing match in Paris on the 28th of November 1913.
Eugene Bullard, at the outbreak of the war, wanted to defend the country in which he had sought equality. He joined the French Foreign Legion on the 19th of October 1914. He was a soldier in the 3rd regiment de Marche and was later transferred to the Moroccan Division of the 170th Infantry Regiment de Ligne, known as the ‘Swallows of Death’, where he fought in the Champagne and Verdun campaigns. He was wounded three times, the last one, on the 5th of March 1916, left him incapacitated to further his infantry service. His bravery as an infantryman led him to be awarded the Croix de Guerre and Médaille Militaire.
He decided to make history. At the Café Copoule in Paris in the spring of 1916, whilst on leave due to injuries, he had a friendly argument that evolved into a $2,000 bet. Jeff Dickson, a white Mississippian serving in the Foreign Legion questioned Bullard for wanting to join the Air Service, to which he replied, ‘There must be a first to everything, and I’m going to be the first Negro military pilot’. Bullard successfully won the bet.
Bullard was accepted in the Aéronautique Militaire as a machine-gunner. He started training at Cazaux in October where he met fellow Legionnaire, Edmond Charles Clinton Genet, who told Bullard about the Lafayette Flying Corps. It was an organisation for farming American volunteers out to French squadrons, funded by Helen Vanderbilt, where pilots could draw 50 francs a month – about $30 then. Bullard’s Legion pay was 30 cents per month, this was the chance that he had always wanted. He joined on the 15th of November 1916, requested pilot training and reported to the aviation school at Tours.
Eugene and his monkey Jimmy. Jimmy, unfortunately, did not survive the war as he became a victim of the influenza pandemic of 1918. This picture was taken at Escadrille N.93.
He began mastering his training of a Bleriot XI with clipped wings, officially called a rouleur, popularly known as pingouin. He then was sent to Chateauroux, where he trained in Caudron G.3s(a single-engine biplane reconnaissance aircraft) and G.4s (a bomber with two engines). After, he was sent to Avord, where he was placed in charge of the sleeping quarters of other American volunteer airmen. On the 20th of August 1917, he reported to Plessis Belleville where he received orders to report to Escadrille N.93 at Bar-le-Duc, 40 miles behind the lines near Verdun.
Bullard finally saw action on the 8th of September 1917, in the afternoon patrol, when they spotted four German bombers escorted by 16 fighters. The French claimed four bombers and two of their escorts. On the 13th of September, he was transferred to Escadrille Spa.85, a neighbouring squadron, he decorated his Spad VII C1. with a bleeding red heart with a dagger through it on the fuselage side along with the slogan ‘Tout sang que coule est rouge’ (‘All blood runs red’). He also flew with a rhesus monkey named Jimmy, who he claimed gave him luck in each flight.
However, although a successful military career, on the 11th of November 1917, he was dismissed from the Aéronautique Militaire, returned to his old regiment, and was assigned to its service battalion until his honourable discharge on the 23rd of October 1919.
He also tried to join the American Expeditionary Force, passed all medical examinations but was rejected due to the barring of black people flying in the American service.
After the war, he remained in Paris as an expatriate where he became a successful nightclub impresario and gym owner. A manager of Le Grand Duc, which he later purchased, was a hotspot for personalities like Langston Hughes, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and even the Prince and Princess of Wales. He returned to boxing but also played the drums in one of the increasingly popular jazz bands.
Bullard at Le Grand Duc. In the centre is Blink McCluskey, a fellow boxer from pre-World War I. At the far left is Fernando Jones, part of the Belle Davis’s Picks.
In early 1939, a new French intelligence service, the Deuxieme Bureau created three years earlier within the Ministry of the Interior to monitor the 17,000 Germans in Paris, recruited Bullard as an agent. Thanks to the First World War, Bullard learnt German. Along with his French and English skills, he was a great candidate for spying on Nazi sympathizers and the French Fifth columnists who frequented the Grand Duc and his gym.
French intelligence recruited another prominent African American, Josephine Baker, who passed along information on German clients at the theatres and nightclubs where she sang, coincidentally that being Bullard’s nightclubs. Bullard’s police handler, Georges Leplanquais, assigned a 27-year-old Alsatian woman, Cleopatre ‘Kitty’ Terrier, to work with him.
In late May, the Germans launched their blitzkrieg of the Low Countries and cut through France at shocking speed. Bullard knew that his skin colour would make him a target for Nazis, who were even more race-obsessed than the white people he had grown up with and also discover he worked for the French Intelligence.
Bullard with his French Foreign Legion comrades during World War One
He encountered his lieutenant from 170th Regiment, now Major Roger Bader in the 51st Infantry Regiment and joined them to fight. He was wounded whilst fighting at Orleans on the 18th of June 1940. Bullard was told to go to the not yet invaded Bordeaux as the American Hospital of Paris had established a field station in Angoulême.
Once again, luck struck. Dr. H. C. De Vaux, physician to the 170th Regiment in the First World War and old friend of Bullard, was on duty at the hospital. He bandaged him, gave him pain killers and advised him to leave the country before the Germans found him. He managed to get a passport and helped by Charlie Levy, he was smuggled across the Pyrenees into Spain and then into Portugal where he would escape to America aboard the Manhattan bound for New York on the 12th of July 1940.
As he recovered from his injuries, he found that he was a hero in France, but he also was no one in the United States.
Upon arrival to New York, he worked various jobs and formed part of the French cultural life of the city. In the summer of 1949, he participated in altercations with the police and a racist mob at a Paul Robeson concert. He was involved in another incident with a bus driver as he was requested to sit at the back of the bus. This led to him returning to France, where he was never able to resume his former life as the Nazi occupation had destroyed his nightclub.
Eugene and Garroway at the Today Show
He settled for a financial settlement from the French government which allowed him to purchase an apartment in Harlem. He got employed as an elevator operator at Rockefeller Centre. Bullard appeared in the Today Show due to Garroway’s curiosity about the elevator operator with the many French military medals on his uniform.
Bullard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Triumph Arc in 1954
His quiet life in New York did not compare to the respect he received from the French, who never forgot him. He was chosen to be one of the veterans chosen to relight the flame on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc of Triomphe in 1954. On the 9th of October 1959, he was made a Chevalier de la Legion D’Honneur.
In 1960, French President Charles de Gaulle personally visited Bullard in New York. Throughout his life, he was awarded fifteen French war medals including the Croix du Combattant volontaire, Wounded Insignia, World War I Commemorative Medal and the Victory Medal, Freedom Medal and the World War II Commemorative Medal, as well as the already mentioned above.
On the 12th of October 1961, Bullard died of stomach cancer. The world’s first black aviator was laid to rest in the Federation of French War Veterans Cemetery in Flushing, New York. He requested to wear the uniform of a French Foreign Legionnaire and his casket was draped in the French flag.
Posthumously, on the 23rd of August 1994, President Bill Clinton commissioned Bullard to the rank of Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force.
Maria Garcia Ribera
Maria is a graduate of Brunel University in Military and International History and is currently undertaking a masters in Intelligence and Security Studies. Her research is focused on war and conflict and its effect on geographical acquisitions.