Eugene Jacques Bullard: The First Black American Fighter Pilot
Updated: Aug 11
By: Donald V. Watkins
Copyrighted and Published on August 8, 2021
Most Americans have never heard of Eugene Jacques Bullard (1895-1961). Bullard was the first black American fighter pilot. He was also a decorated World War I and II military hero who was celebrated in France after each war, but officially ignored, physically abused, and grossly mistreated in America.
Bullard was raised in Columbus, Georgia as the seventh of ten children born to William Octave Bullard, a black man from the Caribbean Island of Martinique, and Josephine "Yokalee" Thomas, a Native-American woman from the Creek Indian Tribe. When Bullard was a youngster, his father was nearly lynched by a white mob over a workplace dispute. Despite this racist incident, William and Josephine Bullard continued to instill in their children that African-Americans had to maintain their dignity and self-respect in the face of extreme white racism against blacks.
Bullard's father, whose ancestors were Haitian, also told his children stories about France's early abolition of slavery following the successful end to the Haitian Revolution by the Island's enslaved indigenous population in 1804. This was the only successful slave revolution in the Western Hemisphere. Bullard's father also told him that France was a nation where blacks were treated the same as whites.
By the time Bullard was a teenager, he had made his way to Europe and settled in France in search of a life free of Deep South racial prejudice.
Bullard's World War I Military Service
World War I began in August 1914. On October 19, 1914, Bullard enlisted in the French Foreign Legion as a foreign volunteer. By 1915, Bullard was a machine gunner in a couple of Marching Regiments of the Foreign Legion. He sustained serious battle wounds while fighting in one of his unit's military campaigns.
On October 2, 1916, Bullard joined the French Aeronautique Militaire (French Air Service), where he served as a gunner. He later trained to become a fighter pilot. Bullard flew over 20 combat missions for the French Air Service during World War I. He is credited with shooting down one or more German aircraft in air-to-air combat. Bullard was awarded the Croix de guerre, Médaille militaire, Croix du combattant volontaire (1914-1918), and Médaille de Verdun, along with a host of other honors for his distinguished military service to France during the war.
White racism prevented Bullard from flying for the United States Army's all-white Air Service after America entered World War I. Bullard sought to fly in the Lafayette Flying Corps for the Air Service of the American Expeditionary Forces, but the American Air Service only chose white pilots.
Bullard was one of the few black fighter pilots during World War I. The others were William Robinson Clarke, a Jamaican who flew for the British Royal Air Force, Domenico Mondelli from Italy, and Ahmet Ali Celikten of the Ottoman Empire.
America would not allow blacks to serve as fighter pilots until World War II when the famed "Tuskegee Airman" were trained in Tuskegee, Alabama as combat pilots and placed into service over the skies of Europe during the last two years of the war.
After the World War I ended, Bullard returned to Paris, where he married a French woman from a wealthy family in 1923, fathered two daughters, and operated a popular nightclub named "Zelli's." Bullard continued to operate various nightclubs and athletic clubs in Paris and other European cities until the outbreak of World War II.
Bullard's World War II Military Service
When World War II began in 1939, Bullard, who also spoke fluent German, agreed to a request from the French government to spy on the German citizens who still frequented his nightclub.
After Germany invaded France in May 1940, Bullard volunteered again for the French Foreign Legion and served in an Infantry Regiment. Bullard was wounded again on June 15, 1940 while defending Orleans, but he was able to escape to neutral Spain.
In July 1940, Bullard returned to the United States and settled in New York City. Bullard, who divorced his wife in 1935, was able to buy an apartment in Harlem from the proceeds of a financial settlement he received from the French government for his war-related injuries.
Bullard quickly learned that the fame he enjoyed in France as a war hero did not follow him to the United States.
Bullard Was Severely Beaten During the Peekskill, New York Riots
In 1949, black entertainer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson scheduled a concert in Peekskill, New York to benefit the Civil Rights Congress. Before Robeson arrived for the concert, an angry white mob attacked the concert-goers with baseball bats and stones. Thirteen people were seriously injured before police could put an end to the rioting. Bullard was one of the injured patrons.
None of the white assailants, who included state and local law enforcement officers, were prosecuted. Graphic photos taken during the riot captured two police officers, a state trooper, and another person beating Bullard. These photos were published around the world.
Unknown in His Own Country, Bullard Died a Decorated French War Hero
The momentousness of Eugene Jacques Bullard's life was matched only by the speed and efficacy with which it was marginalized and "forgotten" by his home land -- the United States of America.
In the 1950s, Bullard lived alone in his New York City apartment, which was decorated with his 14 French war medals and numerous military commendations. In New York, Bullard worked as a perfume salesman, a security guard, and an interpreter for famed Jazz musician, Louis Armstrong. Bullard's final job was his employment as an elevator operator at the Rockefeller Center in upper Manhattan.
In 1954, the French government invited Bullard back to Paris to serve as one of the French soldiers chosen to rekindle the everlasting flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe. This was the second highest honor France bestowed upon Bullard. The highest honor would occur five years later.
In 1959, General Charles de Gaulle visited the United States and demanded to see Bullard before he visited U.S. government officials in Washington. President Eisenhower and top officials in the Defense and State Departments had no idea who Eugene Jacques Bullard was. They eventually found Bullard working at his elevator operator's job. When General de Gaulle met with Bullard, he was shocked to see how badly France's decorated war hero was being treated in the United States.
Calling Bullard a "veritable heros francais” ("true French hero"), General de Gaulle made him a Chevalier de a Legion d'honneur (Knight of the Legion of Honor). This is France's highest military honor.
On December 22, 1959, Bullard was interviewed on NBC's Today Show by Dave Garroway about his meeting with General de Gaulle and his distinguished service as a French military hero in World Wars I and II. He mesmerized the Today Show's viewers and received hundreds of letters of appreciation after his appearance. Bullard wore his elevator operator uniform during this TV interview, which symbolized the reality of black life in America at the time.
Bullard died in New York City of stomach cancer on October 12, 1961, at the age of 66. He was buried with full military honors in the French War Veterans' section of Flushing Cemetery in the New York City borough of Queens. His friend, Louis Armstrong, is buried in the same cemetery.
[Author's Note: Donald V. Watkins acknowledges and credits the historical research and photos of the life, military service, and death of Eugene Jacques Bullard that have been published: (a) on Wikipedia; (b) in Susan Robeson's biography of her grandfather titled, "The Whole World in His Hands: A Pictorial Biography of Paul Robeson;" (c) in the 1970s documentary titled, "The Tallest Tree in Our Forest;" (d) in a documentary narrated by legendary actor Sidney Poitier titled, "Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist;" and (e) in John H. Wilson's article, "America's First Black Fighter Pilot Fought for the French." As a nation in 2021, we do not know the true history of African-Americans because so much of our history was deliberately omitted from history books that were written and published by the white historians, authors, and journalists of the nadir. The website www.donaldwatkins.com is committed to making the positive contributions of African-Americans known worldwide.].
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