America’s Most Unsung Hero: Eugene James Bullard

FROM THE ARCHIVES – Daedalus Flyer Summer 2018
by John Lowery

Few people know the saga of America’s first black military fighter pilot, with the nom-de guerre of “The Black Swallow of Death.” To say that Eugene James Bullard, America’s first black military pilot, was an amazing individual would be a gross understatement. First, as a teenager during the opening weeks of World War I he became an awardwinning infantryman in the French Foreign Legion. After being severely wounded and found unfit for the infantry, to stay in the fight he volunteered as an aerial gunner. It was while attending aerial gunnery school he managed to get reassigned to pilot training – subsequently becoming a fighter pilot flying the French SPAD VII and scoring two probable kills against a German Fokker Dr.1 and Pfalz D III.


Eugene was born on Oct. 6, 1895, in Columbus, Georgia, the seventh of 10 children of William (Octave) Bullard, a former slave of Stewart County planter Wiley Bullard and Creek Indian mother Josephine (Yokalee) Thomas. The references vary, but apparently his father’s ancestors had been enslaved on the French island of Martinique and had fled to the United States in the early 1800s during the Haitian Revolution.

His education consisted of five years of grade school, 1901 to 1906, at the Columbus Twenty-eighth Street (elementary) School. Although he dropped out, he had learned to read, which was one of the keys to his later success.

It was during this period the small boy suffered the trauma of watching a drunken white mob attempt to lynch his father over a workplace dispute. Meanwhile, his dad continued to voice the conviction that African-Americans had to maintain their dignity and self-respect in the face of the white prejudice they encountered. Meanwhile, young Eugene had become obsessed with his father’s stories of a faraway place called France where slavery had been abolished and blacks were treated the same as whites.

Thus, as he reached his 11th birthday the precocious child ran away from home with the determined intent of getting to France. Stopping in Atlanta he joined an English clan of gypsies known by the surname of Stanley. Ultimately, he traveled throughout Georgia tending their horses and learning to race. It was the Stanleys who told him how the racial color line did not exist in England. This reset his determination to somehow get to England.

Disheartened that the Stanleys were not soon returning to England he moved on and found work with the Turner family in Dawson, Georgia. Because he was hard-working as a stable boy, young Bullard won the Turners’ affection and they allowed the teenager to ride as their jockey in the 1911 County Fair races.

Still inspired by what he learned with the Stanleys, in an effort to get to England he stowed away on a German merchant ship, the Marta Russ, which departed on Mar. 4, 1912, for Aberdeen, Scotland. Once in Scotland he supported himself by performing in a vaudeville troupe. Blessed with his father’s tall, muscular body, he learned to box at a local gym and earned money as a prize fighter in Great Britain and elsewhere in Europe. It was during a 1913 boxing match in Paris that he decided to settle there, changing his middle name from James to Jacques.

World War I began in August 1914 and 19-year old Bullard immediately enlisted in the Third Marching Regiment of the French Foreign Legion. He participated in several major campaigns as a machine gunner, with his unit suffering over 50 percent casualties. On Mar. 5, 1916, he was severely wounded for the second time at the Battle of Verdun. During his convalescence Bullard was awarded France’s prestigious Croix de Guerre.

After recovering from his wounds Bullard was found unfit for the infantry. Yet, still wanting to get back in the fight, he volunteered for the French Aeronautique Militaire as an aerial gunner. It was while training as an aerial gunner that he learned he could become a pilot, and soon was accepted for pilot training.

He graduated from pilot training on May 5, 1917, and from there he was sent to the advanced flying school at Chateauroux; followed by advanced fighter training at the Avord School of Military Aviation. Upon finishing at Avord, Bullard joined 269 American aviators in the Lafayette Flying Corps.

On June 28, 1917, he was promoted to corporal, yet again he began to sense racial prejudice by consistently being overlooked for assignment to a
frontline combat unit. The problem turned out to be a commissioned American doctor Edmund Gros, who had been instrumental in forming the Lafayette Escadrille. He was vice president of a committee overseeing the selection and affairs of all American pilots flying for France. Unfortunately, Gros attempted to make life difficult for Bullard.

After complaining to his commander Bullard finally received orders on Aug. 8, 1917, to Le Plessis Bellville for some additional combat training, whereupon he was reassigned to Spa-93, one of France’s top fighter squadrons equipped with the fast, maneuverable SPAD VII and Nieuports. The SPAD VII to which Bullard was assigned was powered by the Hispano-Suiza 8-Aa, 180 horsepower in-line engine, giving it a top speed in level flight of 127 MPH. Its armament consisted of a Vickers .303 caliber machine gun, synchronized to fire through the propeller.

Aerial Combat

In mid-September 1917 Bullard was one of 14 pilots scheduled to fly two combat sorties. Those two missions went routinely with no enemy aircraft sighted. However, the next day was different, as he experienced his first fighter-versus-fighter aerial combat. It was an early morning mission led by his commander Victor Menard. Their armada was flying their classic V-formation when they spotted a large German formation consisting of four bombers protected by 16 Fokker Dr. 1 Dreideker triplanes headed towards Bar-le-Duc, a French industrial center about halfway to Paris.

The forthcoming dogfight was what fighter pilots would later term a “furball”- a sky full of fighters each maneuvering aggressively trying to shoot down the other. The dogfight ended with the explosion of the four German bombers that had been intercepted by other squadron members. Later he learned that two of his squadron’s SPADS had been shot down; and because parachutes were not yet available the pilots were lost.

Following six days of flying combat Bullard was transferred to Spa-85, another squadron of the Lafayette Flying Corps. Their mission was to patrol in the region of Valdalaincourt and Bar-le-Duc, where he encountered the red painted Fokkers of the famed “von Richthofen Flying Circus.”

On the day he scored his first aerial victory, his squadron was patrolling near the German front lines when the red triplanes appeared, flying straight towards his squadron and obviously looking for a fight. The French SPADS and Nieuports quickly engaged, with the aerial battle becoming a classic furball of airplanes. After a hard-rolling break to avoid a head-on attack, Bullard latched onto one of the bright red Fokkers and began firing short bursts.

The German pilot maneuvered violently, but after a long burst from Bullard’s machine gun, pieces of fabric began fluttering in the slipstream, the tri-plane’s engine belched smoke and the aircraft began losing altitude. In an effort to finish-off his victim, Bullard followed the crippled plane down and back across German lines. Suddenly he was startled by the whitish smoke from a stream of tracers fired by ground-based German machine gun crews that were attempting to save the Fokker pilot.

Suddenly he heard the whop-whop as bullets punched holes in his aircraft’s taut fabric followed by the metallic twang as bullets hit parts of his SPAD’s engine which began backfiring and belching black smoke. In the distance he could see the smoking Fokker still descending, but he had no time to watch its ground impact. In desperation he turned to get back across French lines while frantically searching for a place to land. Then his engine quit which forced him to set down in a muddy field in no-man’s land.

With the German’s continuing to randomly shoot, Bullard quickly clambered over the side and fell into a muddy shell hole. As darkness fell, and with the desperate SPAD pilot soaked and shivering from the cold, he suddenly heard French voices in the inky blackness. His aircraft mechanic, accompanied by a group of soldiers, emerged from the forest behind him leading some horses with which they planned to drag Bullard’s badly damaged airplane back to the airfield for repair.

As for Bullard’s adversary, the Fokker’s smoking engine and the loss of power that forced it to descend should have made it a confirmed victory. But he had not seen it crash-land, so it could only be classified as an unconfirmed victory.

Confirmed Victory

One cold, cloudy and turbulent late November morning the squadron’s V-formation of SPAD VIIs was cruising at 12,000 feet in the Verdun battlefield area. As they flew through the edge of a particularly large cloud Bullard lost sight of his squadron’s formation. As he searched for his squadron he spotted a seven-plane formation down below flying in the opposite direction. Suddenly he realized it was a formation of the agile German Pfalz D.III bi-wing fighters.

Quickly he slipped into the edge of a large cloud and waited for the Pfalzs to fly past him. Then he dove behind the last airplane in the formation and opened fire with his Vickers machine gun. The surprised Pfalz pilot, in an attempt to outmaneuver the attacking SPAD, pulled up hard into a loop and left Bullard lagging behind. But Bullard countered by making a quick diving right bank into the edge of a nearby cloud formation, which effectively hid him.

Upon emerging from the clouds Bullard spotted the Pfalz up above him and slowly climbed up behind the enemy aircraft. His opening volley stitched through the Pfalz’s cockpit, and the aircraft pitched up then spiraled earthward and crashed in French territory. With his first aerial victory confirmed, he quickly reentered the edge of the clouds for protection and headed for home base.

On Apr. 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. Bullard promptly asked to be transferred with his fellow “American Flying Corps” pilots to the “American Flying Service.” But with only 29 selected, he was rejected as “unsuited for promotion to second lieutenant.”

Terribly dejected, and since the weather had turned bad, he requested a 24-hour leave with his mechanic to visit friends in Paris. After completing their Paris visit they checked in at the Café du Commerce, a small inn where they could catch the morning train back to their airfield. As they descended the stairs to the inn’s restaurant an unknown French captain motioned Bullard to come over and speak with him. The captain had been commanding French colonial troops in Africa and was newly returned to France. For no reason he viciously attacked Bullard verbally, until finally stopped by a French Army major who was seated nearby. The major apologized to Bullard and promised to support him if anything more occurred.

Four days after returning to home base Bullard received a letter from Dr. Gros who accused Bullard of arguing with an officer. On Nov. 11, 1917, Bullard was discharged from the French Flying Service and transferred back to his old unit, the 170th French Infantry. Because of his previous wounds, he was transferred to a military camp at Fontaine du Berger 300 miles south of Paris, where he performed menial tasks in a service battalion until the end of the war.

Post War Activity

After being discharged from military service he went in a variety of directions, first as a boxer, then in a band playing drums. Shortly, he was promoted to manager of a night club called Zelli’s, which he helped make a financial success. He soon bought his own nightclub, “Le Grand Duc,” on the north side of Paris. Thanks to his musician friends and a lot of hard work his customers soon included movie stars such as Edward G. Robinson, Charlie Chaplin, and writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

In 1923, he married Marcelle Eugenie Henrietta Straumann, the daughter of a wealthy French family. Unfortunately, their differences in background and social status were too much for their marriage, and they divorced in December 1935. Bullard was given custody of their two daughters who received the best education the private schools in Paris could provide.

In 1939, with Germany’s Hitler threatening France and because Bullard was also fluent in German, he was recruited by the French counterintelligence network to report what he heard from his German guests at his nightclub. They would talk freely about sensitive subjects since they couldn’t conceive of a black American fluent in three languages – English, French and German.

When the Nazis took over France, Bullard escaped to Spain leaving his daughters in their Parisian boarding school. Thanks to the Red Cross, he boarded a train to Lisbon, Portugal, where the American steamship Manhattan took him along with hundreds of Americans to New York. Sometime later his teenage daughters were able to follow him there.

In New York, Bullard worked a variety of jobs such as a security guard and longshoreman. He eventually returned to Paris but was unable to resume his life there. In 1954 he, along with two other French veterans, was invited to Paris by French President Charles de Gaulle to re-light the everlasting flame at the Arc of Triumph’s tomb of the unknown soldier. In October 1959 he was made a knight of the Legion of Honor, the highest-ranking order
bestowed by France. On Dec. 22, 1959, while dressed in his Rockefeller Center elevator operator’s uniform, he was interviewed on NBC’s TODAY show by Dave Garroway.

On Oct. 12, 1961, Eugene Bullard died of stomach cancer. The gallant warrior was buried with full military honors in the French War Veterans section of Flushing Cemetery, in the New York City borough of Queens. And in 1992 the McDonnell Douglas Corporation donated a bronze portrait head of Bullard to the National Air and Space Museum, which is currently displayed in the museum’s Legend, Memory and the Great War in the Air gallery. On Sept. 14, 1994, the United States Air Force posthumously commissioned Eugene James Bullard a 2nd lieutenant. He is further honored by the display of his French flying license issued in 1917 at Gunter Annex-Maxwell AFB, Alabama, and a larger display case in The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, in Dayton, Ohio.

Still, despite all his honors, our first black military pilot and highly decorated warrior remains an unsung hero to most Americans.