Eugene Bullard

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Eugene Jacques Bullard
Eugene Jacques Bullard, first African American combat pilot in uniform, First World War.jpg
Bullard, as a French army corporal
Nickname(s) Black Swallow of Death
Born (1895-10-09)October 9, 1895
Columbus, Georgia, United States
Died October 12, 1961(1961-10-12) (aged 66)
New York City, United States
Buried at Flushing Cemetery (40°45′6″N 73°47′58″W / 40.75167°N 73.79944°W / 40.75167; -73.79944Coordinates: 40°45′6″N 73°47′58″W / 40.75167°N 73.79944°W / 40.75167; -73.79944)
Allegiance  France
Service/branch French Foreign Legion
French Air Service
Years of service 1914–1919, 1940
Battles/wars World War I
World War II
Awards Légion d'honneur
Médaille militaire
Croix de guerre
Croix de guerre
Croix du combattant volontaire 1914-1918
Insigne des blessés militaires
Médaille Interalliée 1914–1918
Médaille commémorative de la guerre 1914-1918
Médaille commémorative de la guerre 1939–1945
Insignia for the Military Wounded

Eugene Jacques Bullard (9 October 1895 – 12 October 1961), born Eugene James Bullard, was the first African-American military pilot.[1] His life has been surrounded by many legends.[2] However, Bullard was unquestionably one of the few black combat pilots in World War I, as was Ahmet Ali Çelikten.

Early life[edit]

Bullard was born in Columbus, Georgia, the seventh of ten children born to William (Octave) Bullard, a black man who was from Martinique, and Josephine ("Yokalee") Thomas, a Creek Indian.[3] His father's ancestors had been slaves in Haiti to French refugees who fled during the Haitian Revolution.[4] They reached the United States and took refuge with the Creek Indians.[5][6][7][8]

Bullard was a student at the Twenty-eighth Street School from 1901 to 1906.[9] As a teenager, he stowed away on a ship bound for Scotland, hoping to escape racial discrimination. (He later claimed to have witnessed his father's narrow escape from lynching). Bullard arrived at Aberdeen and made his way south to Glasgow. On a visit to Paris, he decided to settle in France. He became a boxer in Paris and also worked in a music hall.

World War I experience[edit]

Eugene Bullard, posing in uniform with his pet monkey, Jimmy (1917)
Bullard exhibit at the National Museum of the United States Air Force

World War I began in August 1914, and on October 19, 1914, Bullard enlisted and was assigned to the 3rd Marching Company of the 1st Foreign Regiment of the Foreign Legion (1er Régiment étranger)[10] as volunteers from overseas were then allowed only to serve in the French colonial troops.[11]

Ground combat[edit]

By 1915, Bullard was a machine gunner and saw combat on the Somme front in Picardy. In May and June, he was at Artois, and in the fall of that year fought in a second Champagne offensive (25 September – 6 November 1915) along the Meuse river.[12][13] The 1st and 2nd Foreign Legion Regiments were serving as part of the 1st Moroccan Brigade (1re Brigade Marocaine) of the 1st Moroccan Division (la Division Marocaine). Formed by Hubert Lyautey, a Resident-General of Morocco, at the outbreak of World War I, it was a mix of the Metropolitan and Colonial French troops, including Legionnaires, zouaves and tirailleurs.[14] Towards the end of the war, the 1st Moroccan Division became one of the most decorated units in the French Army.[15]

The Foreign Legion suffered high casualties in 1915. It started the year with 21,887 soldiers, NCOs and officers, and ended with 10,683.[16] As a result, the Foreign Legion units fighting on the Western front were put in reserve for reinforcement and reorganization. On November 11, 1915, 3,316 survivors from the 1st and the 2nd Etranger were merged into one unit – the Marching Regiment of Foreign Legion (Le régiment de marche de la légion étrangère), which in 1920 became the 3rd Regiment (3e régiment étranger d'infanterie) of the French Foreign Legion.

As for Americans and other volunteers, they were allowed to transfer to the Metropolitan French Army units, including the 170th Line Infantry Regiment. 170th had a reputation of crack troops and was nicknamed Les Hirondelles de la Mort, or The Swallows of Death.[17] Bullard opted to serve in the 170th Infantry Regiment and the 170 military insignia is displayed on his uniform collar. In the beginning of 1916, the 170th Infantry along with the 48th Infantry Division (48e division d'infanterie) to which it belonged, was sent to Verdun.

Family requests help[edit]

After hearing about the horrors of the trench war in France, Bullard's father wrote to the U.S. Secretary of State pleading for his help in bringing his son home. He explained that Eugene was born in October 1895, not in 1894, and added a year to his age when he enlisted. However, the French government officials decided that Bullard had been old enough to enlist.[12]


While serving with the 170th Infantry, Bullard was seriously wounded in March 1916 at the Battle of Verdun.[12][18] After recovering, he volunteered on October 2, 1916 for the French Air Service (Aéronautique Militaire)[19] as an air gunner. He was accepted and went through training at the Aerial Gunnery School in Cazaux, Gironde.[10] Following this, he went through his initial flight training at Châteauroux and Avord, and he received pilot's license number 6950 from the Aéro-Club de France on May 5, 1917.[10][12] Like many other American aviators, Bullard hoped to join the famous squadron Escadrille Americaine N.124, the Lafayette Escadrille, but after enrolling 38 American pilots in spring and summer of 1916, it stopped accepting applicants. After further training at Avord, Bullard [20] joined 269 American aviators at the Lafayette Flying Corps on November 15, 1916,[21] which was a designation rather than a unit.[22] American volunteers flew with French pilots in different pursuit and bomber/reconnaissance aero squadrons on the Western Front. Edmund L. Gros, who facilitated the incorporation of American pilots in the French Air Service, listed in the October 1917 issue of Flying, an official publication of the Aero Club of America, Bullard's name is in the member roster of the Lafayette Flying Corps.[23]

On June 28, 1917 Bullard was promoted to corporal.[10] On August 27, he was assigned to the Escadrille N.93 based at Beauzée-sur-Aire south of Verdun, where he stayed till September 13.[24] The squadron was equipped with Nieuport and Spad aircraft that displayed a flying duck as the squadron insignia. Bullard's service record also includes the aero squadron N.85 (Escadrille SPA 85), September 13, 1917 – November 11, 1917, which had a bull insignia.[25][26] He took part in about twenty combat missions, and he is sometimes credited with shooting down one or two German aircraft (sources differ).[13] However, the French authorities could not confirm Bullard's victories.[27]

When the United States entered the war, the United States Army Air Service convened a medical board to recruit Americans serving in the Lafayette Flying Corps for the Air Service of the American Expeditionary Forces. Bullard went through the medical examination, but he was not accepted, as only white pilots were allowed to serve. Some time later, on a short break from duty in Paris, Bullard allegedly got into a fight with a French commissioned officer and was punished by being transferred to the service battalion of the 170th in January 1918.[13] He served beyond the Armistice, not being discharged until October 24, 1919.[12]

After the war[edit]

For his World War I service, the French government awarded Bullard the Croix de guerre, Médaille militaire, Croix du combattant volontaire 1914–1918, and Médaille de Verdun, along with several others.[13][18] After his discharge, Bullard returned again to Paris.

In Paris[edit]

Bullard found work as a drummer and a nightclub manager at "Le Grand Duc", and he eventually became the owner of his own nightclub, "L'Escadrille". In 1923 he married Marcelle Straumann, from a wealthy family, but this ended in divorce in 1935, with Bullard gaining custody of their two surviving children, Jacqueline and Lolita.[28] As a popular jazz venue, "Le Grand Duc" gained him many famous friends, including Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong, Langston Hughes and French flying ace Charles Nungesser. When World War II began in September 1939, Bullard, who also spoke German, agreed to a request from the French government to spy on the German citizens who still frequented his nightclub.

Following the German invasion of France in May 1940, Bullard fled Paris with his daughters. He volunteered to serve with the 51st Infantry in defending Orléans, and he met an officer whom he knew from Verdun.[12] Bullard was wounded, but he escaped to neutral Spain, and in July 1940 he returned to the United States.

In New York City[edit]

Bullard spent some time in a New York hospital and never fully recovered from his wound. Moreover, he found the fame he enjoyed in France had not followed him to the United States. He worked as a perfume salesman, a security guard, and as an interpreter for Louis Armstrong, but a back injury severely restricted him. In 1945, he attempted to regain his nightclub in Paris, but it had been destroyed during the war. He received a financial settlement from the French government, and was able to buy an apartment in Harlem, New York City.

Peekskill Riots[edit]

Main article: Peekskill Riots

In 1949, a concert held by Black entertainer and activist Paul Robeson in Peekskill, New York to benefit the Civil Rights Congress resulted in the Peekskill Riots. These were caused in part by members of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion chapters, who considered Robeson a communist sympathizer.[29] The concert was scheduled to take place on August 27 in Lakeland Acres, north of Peekskill. Before Robeson arrived, however, a mob attacked the concert-goers with baseball bats and stones. Thirteen people were seriously injured before police put an end to it. The concert was then postponed until September 4.[30] The re-scheduled concert took place without incident, but as concert-goers drove away, they passed through long lines of hostile locals, who threw rocks through their windshields.

Eugene Bullard was among those attacked after the concert. He was knocked to the ground and beaten by an angry mob, which included members of the state and local law enforcement. The attack was captured on film and can be seen in the 1970s documentary The Tallest Tree in Our Forest and the Oscar winning documentary narrated by Sidney Poitier, Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist. None of the assailants was ever prosecuted. Graphic pictures of Eugene Bullard being beaten by two policeman, a state trooper and a concert goer were published in Susan Robeson's biography of her grandfather, The Whole World in His Hands: a Pictorial Biography of Paul Robeson.[29]

Later life[edit]

Bullard in his later years, wearing the croix de guerre fourragère on his shoulder, 170th regiment distinction, and the cap of the French War Veterans

In the 1950s, Bullard was a relative stranger in his own homeland. His daughters had married, and he lived alone in his apartment, which was decorated with pictures of his famous friends and a framed case containing his fifteen French war medals. His final job was as an elevator operator at the Rockefeller Center, where his fame as the "Black Swallow of Death" was unknown.

In 1954, the French government invited Bullard to Paris to help rekindle the everlasting flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe. In 1959 he was made a chevalier (knight) of the Légion d'honneur. While this gained him some recognition, his last years were spent in relative obscurity and poverty in New York City.

On December 22, 1959, he was interviewed on NBC's Today Show by Dave Garroway and received hundreds of letters from viewers. Bullard wore his elevator operator uniform during the interview.

Eugene Bullard died in New York City of stomach cancer on October 12, 1961 at age 66.[1] He was buried with military honors in the French War Veterans' section of Flushing Cemetery in the New York City borough of Queens.


Eugene Bullard received fifteen decorations from the government of France.[12] He was made a knight of the Legion of Honor, France's most coveted award. He also was awarded the Médaille militaire, another high military distinction.[31]

In 1972, Bullard's exploits as a pilot were retold in a biography, The Black Swallow of Death.[32] Bullard is also the subject of the nonfiction young adult memoir Eugene Bullard: World's First Black Fighter Pilot by Larry Greenly.[33]

On August 23, 1994, thirty-three years after his death, and seventy-seven years to the day after the physical that should have allowed him to fly for his own country, Eugene Bullard was posthumously commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force.

The 2006 movie Flyboys loosely portrayed Bullard and his comrades in World War I.

In 2012–2014 the French writer Claude Ribbe wrote a book on Eugene Bullard [34] and made a television documentary.[35]

Decorations and medals[edit]

Eugene Bullard's awards
Bullard's medals at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Dayton, Ohio
Legion Honneur Chevalier ribbon.svg Medaille militaire ribbon.svg Croix de Guerre 1914-1918 ribbon.svg
Croix du Combattant Volontaire 1914-1918 ribbon.svg Croix du Combattant (1930 France) ribbon.svg Medaille (Insigne) des Blesses Militaires ribbon.svg
World War I Victory Medal ribbon.svg Medaille commemorative de la bataille de Verdun ribbon.svg Medaille commemorative de la bataille de la Somme ribbon.svg
Medaille commemorative de la Guerre 1914-1918 ribbon.svg Ruban de la Médaille commémorative des services volontaires de la France libre.PNG Medaille commemorative de la Guerre 1939-1945 ribbon.svg

First row -

Second row –

Third row -

Fourth row -

Other awards -

  • Voluntary Enlistment Medal (World War I)
  • American Volunteers with the French Army Medal (private award)

Note – Bullard was posthumously eligible for the World War I Victory Medal (United States) as he was posthumously commissioned an officer in the United States Army with a date of rank which fell during the eligibility period of the medal.


  1. ^ a b "Eugene Bullard, Ex-Pilot, Dead. American Flew for French in '18". New York Times. October 14, 1961. Retrieved 2012-11-17. Eugene Jacques Bullard of 10 East 116th Street, a Negro flier who was honored in France for ... 
  2. ^ Harris, Henry Scott (2012). All Blood Runs Red: Life and Legends of Eugene Jacques Bullard: First Black American Military Aviator. NOOK Book (eBook): ISBN 9781456612993. 
  3. ^ William I. Chivalette. "Corporal Eugene Jacques Bullard First Black American Fighter pilot". Air & Space Power Journal. Retrieved 2013-06-27. 
  4. ^ Dickon, Chris, ed. (2014). "Americans at War in Foreign Forces: A History, 1914-1945". p. 26. Retrieved 13 February 2016. 
  5. ^ Buckley, Gail Lumet (2002). "American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military from the Revolution To Desert Storm". p. 169. ISBN 0375760091. Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  6. ^ Sutherland, Jonathan (2004). "African Americans at War: An Encyclopedia, Volume 1". p. 119. ISBN 1576077462. Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  7. ^ Bielakowski, Alexander M., ed. (2013). "Ethnic and Racial Minorities in the U.S. Military: An Encyclopedia, Volume 1". p. 110. ISBN 9781598844276. Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  8. ^ Martin, James B., ed. (2014). "African American War Heroes". p. 33. ISBN 9781610693660. Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  9. ^ Craig Lloyd, Columbus State University (2002-11-19). "Eugene Bullard (1895-1961)". The New Georgia Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2013-06-27. 
  10. ^ a b c d "Bullard James Eugene". Secrétariat Général pour l'Administration – Ministère de la Défense: Mémoire des hommes. pp. 1–2. Retrieved 2013-06-27. 
  11. ^ Porch, Douglas. The French Foreign Legion: a complete history of the legendary fighting force. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2010.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g Carnes, Mark C. American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 53-55.
  13. ^ a b c d Sutherland, Jonathan. African Americans at War: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, 2004, Vol. 1, p. 86-87.
  14. ^ Dean, William (2010). "Morale Among French Colonial Troops On The Western Front During World War I: 1914–1918". Scientia Militaria, South African Journal of Military Studies 38 (2): 44–61. doi:10.5787/38-2-89. 
  15. ^ Dean, William T. (2011). "Strategic Dilemmas of Colonization: France and Morocco during the Great War". Historian 73 (4): 730–746. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6563.2011.00304.x. 
  16. ^ Porch, Douglas. The French Foreign Legion: a complete history of the legendary fighting force. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2010, p. 380.
  17. ^ "Ferdinand Capdevielle". American Volunteers in the French Foreign Legion, 1914–1917. Retrieved 1 July 2013. 
  18. ^ a b Venzon, Anne Cipriano. The United States in the First World War: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Pub, 1995, p. 110.
  19. ^ "French Air Service". The Aerodrome: Aces and Aircraft of World War I. Retrieved 30 June 2013. 
  20. ^ Hall, James Norman, Charles Nordhoff, and Edgar G. Hamilton. The Lafayette Flying Corps. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1920, Volume II, p. 324.
  21. ^ Gordon, Dennis. The Lafayette Flying Corps: The American Volunteers in the French Air Service in World War One. Atglen, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Pub, 2000, pp. 78-79.
  22. ^ "Member Roster Volunteer American Pilots: The Lafayette Flying Corps". New England Air Museum. Retrieved 2013-06-27. 
  23. ^ Dr. Edmund L. Gros (October 1917). "The members of Lafayette Flying Corps". Flying 6 (9): 776. 
  24. ^ Sloan, James J. Wings of Honor, American Airmen in World War I: A Compilation of All United States Pilots, Observers, Gunners and Mechanics Who Flew against the Enemy in the War of 1914-1918. Atglen, Pa: Schiffer Military/Aviation History Pub, 1994, p. 64.
  25. ^ Hall, James Norman, Charles Nordhoff, and Edgar G. Hamilton. The Lafayette Flying Corps. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1920, Volume II, p. 330.
  26. ^ Escadrille N 85 – SPA 85
  27. ^ Bailey, Frank W., and Christophe Cony. French Air Service War Chronology, 1914-1918: Day-to-Day Claims and Losses by French Fighter, Bomber and Two-Seat Pilots on the Western Front. London: Grub Street, 2001.
  28. ^ "Eugene Bullard". American Aviators of WWI. Retrieved 2013-06-27. 
  29. ^ a b Robeson, Susan. The Whole World in His Hands: A Pictorial Biography of Paul Robeson. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1981. Chapter 5, The Politics of Persecution, p. 181-183.
  30. ^ Ford, Carin T. Paul Robeson: "I Want to Make Freedom Ring". Berkeley Heights, New Jersey: Enslow, 2008. Chapter 9, pp. 97–98.
  31. ^ "Musée National de la Légion d'Honneur: How to research a decorated individual". Retrieved 30 June 2013. 
  32. ^ Carisella, P. J., and James W. Ryan. The Black Swallow of Death: The Incredible Story of Eugene Jacques Bullard, the World's First Black Combat Aviator. Boston: Marlborough House; distributed by Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1972.
  33. ^ Greenly, Larry (2013). Eugene Bullard: World's First Black Fighter Pilot. Montgomery: NewSouth Books. ISBN 978-1-58838-280-1. 
  34. ^ Eugene Bullard by Claude Ribbe (in French) Paris, Le Cherche Midi, 2012
  35. ^ Eugene Bullard TV documentary Trailer

Further reading[edit]

  • Carisella, P. J., and James W. Ryan. The Black Swallow of Death: The Incredible Story of Eugene Jacques Bullard, the World's First Black Combat Aviator. Boston: Marlborough House; distributed by Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1972.
  • Cockfield, Jamie. All Blood Runs Red . American Heritage, Vol. 46, No. 1, February–March 1995.
  • Greenly, Larry W. Eugene Bullard: World's First Black Fighter Pilot. Montgomery, Alabama: NewSouth Books, 2013. ISBN 978-1-58838-280-1
  • Gordon, Dennis. The Lafayette Flying Corps: The American Volunteers in the French Air Service in World War One. Atglen, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Military/Aviation History Pub, 2000. ISBN 9780764311086
  • Harris, Henry Scott. All Blood Runs Red: Life and Legends of Eugene Jacques Bullard: First Black American Military Aviator. NOOK Book (eBook): eBookIt, 2012. ISBN 9781456612993
  • Jouineau, André. Officers and Soldiers of the French Army 1918: 1915 to Victory. Paris: Histoire & Collections, 2008.
  • Lloyd, Craig. Eugene Bullard: Black Expatriate in Jazz Age Paris. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2000. ISBN 0-8203-2192-3
  • Mason, Herbert Molloy Jr. High Flew the Falcons: The French Aces of World War I. New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1965.
  • Ribbe, Claude Eugène Bullard: récit. Paris, Le Cherche Midi, 2012.
  • Sloan, James J. Wings of Honor, American Airmen in World War I: A Compilation of All United States Pilots, Observers, Gunners and Mechanics Who Flew against the Enemy in the War of 1914-1918. Atglen, Pa: Schiffer Military/Aviation History Pub, 1994.

External links[edit]