4th FW historian honors first African-American combat pilot

  • Published
  • By Neil Nichols
  • 4th Fighter Wing historian
Long before the heroic legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, who were led by Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., there was Corporal Eugene Jacques Bullard. 

Mr. Bullard was the world's first African-American combat pilot, who was one of 200 Americans who flew for France during World War I. 

Mr. Bullard was born in 1894 in Columbus, Ga., the grandson of a slave. Because he heard there was no bigotry in France, he sailed to Europe as a stowaway. 

In 1914 he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion, where he earned the nickname "Black Swallow of Death." Mr. Bullard participated in some of the most heavily contested battles of 1915-1916. He was severely wounded in one such battle and received the Croix de Guerre for his heroism. 

While convalescing, he volunteered for pilot duty in the French Air Service. He completed pilot training in May 1917 and in doing so, became the world's first African-American pilot. He flew with the world renowned French Escadrille, where many early American aviators received initial training and combat experience. 

When the United States entered the war in 1917 and offered Air Service pilot commissions to all Americans flying for the French, Mr. Bullard's application was ignored, so he continued to serve in the French military for the rest of the war. 

A quarrel with one of his superiors caused his withdrawal from the aviation unit.
He was sent to the 170th French Infantry Regiment in January 1918. By October 1919, Mr. Bullard was discharged from the armed forces of France, a national hero. He decided to remain in Paris where he married a French countess, and became an owner of a nightclub. 

In July 1939, as war once again threatened the nation, he joined the French underground resistance movement, as a spy. When the Nazis invaded France in 1940, he was severely wounded at Orleans. French partisans smuggled him to Spain to prevent his capture and he was subsequently medically evacuated to the United States. He lived in Harlem, N.Y., for the remainder of his life. 

The French government requested his presence at the Eternal Flame of the Tomb of the Unknown French Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in 1954. Mr. Bullard, along with two other French heroes, had the honor of relighting the flame. Among the many medals he received for service was the Legion of Honor, France's highest decoration. 

Mr. Bullard died Oct. 12, 1961, after suffering from a long illness due to aggravation from the wounds he received in Orleans. He was laid to rest with full honors by the Federation of French War Officers with the tri-color of France draping his coffin at Flushing Cemetery, New York.