After seeing a mob nearly lynch his immigrant father in rural Georgia, he was inspired to make his way to Europe through Britain and France and into the history books. It was in France that he decided to join the French Air Force – and even bet on it.
Lis: World’s first black fighter pilot honored at the Aviation Museum
Bullard’s life has become a testament to fearlessness and willpower, though it was unlikely that was his intention. But every stage of the young black man’s life in the early 20th century would have been an epic battle for others. For Eugene Bullard, it was a natural step.
To fly, it would take a lot more than necessary. It would take a lot of work.
Bullard was the grandson of a former Haitian slave who grew up hearing stories about Europe and other places in the world, places far from the bigotry that engulfed his life in Georgia in the 1800s. He wanted to a better life where he would be judged for who he was, not the color of his skin.
When he was just 8, he watched a mob attempt to hang his father for an unknown and unlikely crime and decided that Paris was the place where he would find the equality he sought. At the age of 10, he pulled over to a freighter bound for Europe, but was caught and dropped off in Scotland.
Working south, Bullard became a professional boxer, which gave him a resilience he would need for years to come. He finally made it to Paris, the destination of his childhood hopes and dreams. The year after his arrival, France was invaded by the German Empire and World War I had begun. Bullard decided to join the French Foreign Legion on his 19th birthday.
His unit was the 170th French Infantry Regiment, nicknamed “the swallows of death”. As an African American male in the unit, he earned him the nickname “the black swallow of death”.
He fought in Verdun, in the Somme and elsewhere, winning the highest military medals France could give. He was injured three times while winning these medals. He fought until he was too wounded to continue serving in the infantry. He was lucky because another 300,000 men were killed in the fighting and another 400,000 were missing or injured. Now disabled, he looked for other ways to support his adopted homeland.
He quickly learned of the existence of the Lafayette Flying Corps.
The Lafayette Flying Corps and the Lafayette Escadrille are the names given to American pilots and their units who volunteered to fly in the defense of France. With the help of a friend, he was able to join the Corps as a pilot and train to fly in Tours. By the time Bullard entered service as a military pilot, it was 1917 and the United States had entered the war.
Bullard now flew combat missions over Verdun, where he had once fought on the ground.
The Army Air Service wanted to absorb the Lafayette squadron into American forces and Bullard was eager to join them. But despite being the first black fighter pilot, fully trained and already enjoying two victories and 20 combat missions, the US military banned black men from serving as pilots. The service even pressured him to be removed from his pilot position.
Even though he had an exceptional combat record, he was returned to his former Foreign Legion unit. This time he was serving in the Service Battalion, in a non-combat role. He remained in the army until October 1919. During the interwar years he worked as a jazz drummer and nightclub worker. the French government asked him to gather intelligence on German spies in Paris, which he dutifully stuck to.
When the Germans invaded France again in 1940, Bullard re-enlisted. This time he would be a machine gunner – and be wounded again.
He had to be smuggled into Spain to escape the Nazis.
As he recovered, Paris fell into the hands of the Nazi war machine and Eugene reportedly returned to the United States for the first time in 34 years. He spent the remainder of the war as a dock worker on Staten Island.
Bullard was working as an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center in New York when he was recalled to France by famous French leader Charles de Gaulle. Bullard, then 59, was asked to rekindle the eternal flame of the French Unknown Soldier.
On his 64th birthday in 1959, de Gaulle made him a Knight of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest military honor, for his service in France during the two world wars. Three years later he died of stomach cancer and was buried in his legionnaire’s uniform.
– Blake Stilwell can be reached at [email protected] It can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.
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