Black Swallow of Death – The First African-American Fighter Pilot

“He had dreamed of better places and conditions and he went to better places and conditions.”  –  Eleanor Roosevelt</blockquote

25 years before the first African-American pilots graduated from Air Corps training in 1942 at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Eugene Jacques Bullard became the first African-American fighter pilot through an extraordinary combination of persistence, skill, and luck. Denied commission by the United States Air Force, Bullard found his way to France and eventually took up service with the French Air Force. His extra-ordinary service in France and World War I earned him numerous medals including the French Government's highest honor —  The Legion of d’Honneur,  the equivalent of the U.S. Medal of Honor.

Eugene Jacques Bullard was born October 9, 1894 in the deep south of Columbus, Georgia. Growing up, Bullard’s grandfather and father often spoke to him of France as a country where whites and blacks were treated as equals. Both men fueled Eugene’s dream of visiting France. As a stowaway on a ship to Scotland from Virginia, young Bullard made his way to France to escape persecution in his own homeland. He enlisted in the French Foreign Legion shortly after the First World War. Bullard was later transferred to a regular unit of the French Army. He was twice wounded and declared disabled. But he applied for pilot training with the French Air Service and was ultimately accepted on the basis of combat heroism. With squadrons 93 and 85, he flew at least twenty missions and reported shooting down two enemy planes.

After the war, he settled down in Paris and married Marcelle Straumann in 1923 – the daughter of a prominent socialite family. He became the owner of a popular night and jazz club – the celebrated L’Escadrille in the 30’s. The couple had three children – one of whom died at childbirth. They later separated and Marcelle gave custody of the two girls to Bullard shortly before she died in 1936. He never remarried. As the Second World War broke, Bullard joined the French underground to help escape downed Allied Airmen. He would later be ferreted out of the country to avoid certain death at the hands of the Nazis and arrived in New York in 1940 with his two daughters. But fame in Europe did not follow him to the United States.

Bullard worked in a variety of trades including as an elevator operator at Rockefeller Plaza. Despite a visit to Paris to re-light the fire at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a French Knighthood and the warm embrace he received from President Charles De Gaulle on a U.S. tour, Bullard spent the last few years of his life in poverty and unknown in a land that was alien to him. He died of stomach cancer on October 12, 1961 and was buried at the French Military Cemetery in Queens, New-York with full military honors. He was fully-honored by France – a nation that he came to love so much. The United States was slow to honor its first black aviator, but recognition finally arrived.

In 1989, he was enshrined in the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame at Robbins Air Force Base. Governor Zell Miller proclaimed October 19th, 1994 as the Eugene Bullard Day in Georgia for the first African-American to fly in the history of American military aviation. Two months earlier, the U.S. Air Force granted Bullard posthumously the Air Force commission denied to him three quarters of a century ago. One can only hope a small section within the future National Museum of African American History and Culture will be dedicated to this great hero. A true internationalist.

 

Photo/Research Credit: H.M.

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