Who Was the First African American Aviator During WWI?
World War I began in 1914 and involved not only the US, but Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Bulgaria, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Italy. Only about 15-20 years earlier the airplane was invented which drastically changed warfare. Fighters and pilots during this time courageously faced enemy forces, and many lost their lives for their beloved country. Unfortunately, it was against the law for Negros, or African Americans to serve as a pilot in the US military. However, one such man defied the law and became a decorated veteran for the French. His name was Eugene James (Jacques) Bullard.
Eugene was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1895. He was of “mixed” race because he was part negro and part Creek Indian. As a youngster, he witnessed a horrid sight; his father was almost lynched. This experience changed the boy, he left home when he was a teenager and sailed to Europe. Mr. Bullard settled in Paris and became a boxer. He enlisted in the French military when Germany attacked France at the beginning of WWI. Eugene was assigned to the French Foreign Legion and was a machine gunner. He served in Picardy, Artois, and Champagne. Air combat was brutal for his squadron, and many were shot down.
So, in 1915, Mr. Bullard was transferred to the 170th Infantry Regiment. He fought valiantly in the Battle of Verdun but was wounded and needed to recover from his injuries. As soon as he was able, he enrolled in the French Air Service and was back in the air. He quickly learned and mastered flight maneuvers that baffled the enemy and caught them by surprise. Eugene has a high reputation and encountered twenty combat missions and shot down at least two German planes. Unfortunately, this cannot be confirmed. It is because of his tenacious spirit that he was given the nickname “Black Swallow of Death.” The US entered WWI in April 1917, and Eugene requested to be transferred to the US Flying Corps. The website, MilitaryHistoryNow.com, says that Mr. Bullard was denied because the US did not permit negros to serve in the military. This didn’t stop Eugene; he continued to fly with the 170th regiment until the US government forbade him to serve in the French Air Service.
Mr. Bullard fought for the Allies in WWI bravely and defended his country honorably. While the US didn’t accept him as an airman, France did. The French military rewarded Eugene for his with the following military honors and awards, such as the Croix de Guerre, the Legion d’honneur, and Medaille Militaire.
After the close of WWI, Eugene worked in a nightclub and opened his own club in the early 1920’s. He married and had two children. With the onset of WWII, Mr. Bullard became a part of the French counterintelligence network to spy on the Germans who invaded France. Many of these enemy soldiers came to his tavern, and he’d overhear their conversations. Little did the German soldiers know that he was fluent in three languages, English, French, and German.
WWII was in full action, and Eugene proudly served in France’s Armed Forces. He fought and defended the city of Orleans but was severely wounded. He later moved back to the US and settled in NY with his daughters.
Once the second world war ended, the French government offered compensation to Mr. Bullard because he lost his business in the war. Eugene died in 1961 but never received proper recognition from the US government until his biography was released in 1972. In 1994, the United States Air Force promoted him to honorary 2nd Lieutenant.