Prejudice and segregation didn’t stop people like Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman to earn a pilot’s license, who crossed the sea to learn to fly. Another African American living in France at the start of World War I, Eugene Bullard, became the first African American to fly in combat. He is often mistakenly referred to as the “world’s first black combat aviator”, but historical research reveals that other men of African descent likely flew for various countries before Bullard. However, Bullard was the first African American to fly in combat, although ironically he never did so for the United States.
Eugene Bullard was born in 1895 in Columbus, Georgia, where he completed his fifth grade education before leaving home at age 11 or 12. He traveled the South before boarding a freighter which landed him in Scotland in 1912. He continued his journey to London where he took part in prizes and performed with an African-American entertainment troupe. In 1913 Bullard sailed to France for a boxing match and decided to settle in Paris, where he continued boxing and found work in music halls and nightclubs.
When World War I broke out in July 1914, Bullard enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. In 1915, he was a machine gunner and participated in the fighting along the Somme and in the Battle of Verdun, during which he was wounded in March 1916. After his convalescence, he joined the Military Aeronautics as a gunner. He underwent gunnery training and was accepted into pilot training and received his pilot’s license in May 1917.
Bullard hoped to join the Lafayette Escadrille, which was a French Air Force squadron, No. 124, made up largely of American volunteer pilots. (Escadrille translates to “squadron” in English.) However, the escadrille stopped accepting new pilots after receiving too many volunteers and was disbanded in February 1918. Thereafter, all American pilots, including Bullard, joined the Lafayette Flying Corps, the designation for all Americans flying in French units. The American pilots are dispersed in different French squadrons.
Bullard was assigned to Nos. 93 and 85 Squadrons and flew over 20 combat missions. Some sources give him credit for shooting down one or two German aircraft, although these were never confirmed, which was necessary to claim a victory. The photos show Bullard’s Spad VII biplane with the insignia of a heart pierced by a dagger and the slogan “All the blood that flows is red”.
When the United States entered the war in 1917, Bullard attempted to join the U.S. Army Air Service, but was rejected, likely due to racial prejudice at the time, but also because he was an enlisted man and that the Army Air Service required pilots to be officers. However, he continued to fly with the French squadrons.
“I was reassured to know that I was able to continue to fight for the same cause as other American citizens,” he said.
Shortly after, he got into an argument (other sources say “fighting”) with a French officer during a break in Paris. He was punished by being returned to his infantry regiment in January 1918; he served there until 1919. For his military service, the French government awarded Bullard the Croix de Guerre, the Croix du Combattant Volontaire 1914-1918, and the Verdun Medal, among others.
After his release, Bullard returned to Paris, where he worked as a jazz drummer in nightclubs, continued boxing, and worked as a fitness trainer. Bullard also managed nightclubs and was able to buy the “Le Grand Duc” nightclub, a fashionable place in Montmartre. There he met many famous people of the day, including Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker, Ernest Hemingway, and French flier Charles Nungesser.
Bullard also opened Bullard’s Athletic Club, which offered physical training, boxing, massage, and hydrotherapy. He married a Frenchwoman and had two children, but the marriage ended in divorce. When World War II began in 1939, Bullard joined a French regiment, was wounded, and returned to the United States in 1940.
Moving to New York, he worked as a salesman and security guard. With a financial settlement from the French government for the destruction of his Parisian businesses during the war, he buys an apartment in Harlem. During the 1950s, Bullard worked as an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan. On December 22, 1959, he was interviewed on NBC Today’s show and exhibits its collection of medals.
The people of France honored Bullard for his service in 1954 when he was one of three men invited to rekindle the flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris. In 1959, he was made a Knight of the National Order of the Legion of Honor.
Bullard died in New York City on October 12, 1961, aged 66, and was buried in the French veterans section of Flushing Cemetery in the borough of Queens, New York.
In 1989 Bullard was inducted into the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame. In 1994, he was posthumously appointed a second lieutenant in the US Air Force. The McDonnell Douglas Corp. donated a bronze bust of Bullard to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, and the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins, Georgia erected a statue of Bullard outside the museum. Bullard’s medals are on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, and two biographies are available: Eugène Bullard: black expatriate at Jazz-Age Paris by Craig Lloyd, and All Blood Runs Red: The Legendary Life of Eugene Bullard: Boxer, Pilot, Soldier, Spy by Tom Clavin and Phil Keith.
Visit Bullard’s hometown
Fly 100 miles southwest of Atlanta to Columbus Airport, four miles northeast of the city. It sits at 397 feet msl with two asphalt runways. Runway 06/24 is 6,997 feet by 150 feet and Runway 13/31 is 3,997 feet by 75 feet. For fuel and parking, contact Flightways Columbus, the airport’s full-service FBO. A marker in Columbus is near the site of Bullard’s childhood home at the intersection of Talbotton Road and Ashley Station Boulevard. Columbus has a few sites that pilots may be interested in, such as the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center, located near Fort Benning, the Coca-Cola Space Science Center, and the National Civil War Naval Museum, which displays two warships from Civil War uniforms and weapons used by Union and Confederate navies.