Eugene Bullard: The First African American Fighter Pilot

Eugene Bullard: The First African American Fighter Pilot

Few people today know the story of Eugene James Bullard, the first African American military fighter pilot.

Shrouded in legend and inaccuracies, Bullard’s life story is an interesting one that begins in the rural American South.

Bullard was born in Columbus, Georgia to William Bullard and Josephine “Yokalee” Thomas. William was from the French island of Martinique, and Josephine was an indigenous American from the Creek tribe.

Later claiming he did so after witnessing his father escape a lynching, Bullard was a stowaway on the German ship Marta Russ in 1912 at 16.

He landed in Scotland, and later made his way to England, taking various odd jobs along the way. He worked as a street performer, on a fish wagon, and even as a boxer.

Working as a boxer eventually took him to France.

At 19, he joined the French Foreign Legion in the country’s fight against Germany during World War I. He later transferred to the regular French Army, and fought in the Battle of Verdun, where he sustained serious injuries acting as a messenger. He earned the Croix de Guerre for that action.

During his recovery from the injury, he met a French air service officer who pledged to help him become a gunner on an aircraft.

Bullard (far left, back row) in a group shot of French foreign troops.

In October, 1916, Bullard underwent training at a military air station near Bordeaux, France. During his training, he learned of the Lafayette Escadrille. The Lafayette Escadrille was a squadron of American fighter pilots fighting for the French.

Bullard, believed to have been taken sometime after World War I.

Bullard ultimately decided to train as a pilot, and became a licensed pilot.

When the United States entered the war, Bullard applied to be a pilot for the American Expeditionary Forces, but was rejected.

After around 20 missions with the Lafayette Escadrille, Bullard was dismissed from the group. The reasons for the dismissal remain unclear, with some biographers tracing it to an argument with a racist French officer. Some historians believe the dismissal was a result of the Jim Crow segregation the U.S. Army brought with it to France, and that it was feared seeing black men like Bullard behaving freely in France could hurt troop morale.

After the war, Bullard remained in France, where he owned a gym and nightclub. Langston Hughes reportedly washed dishes at Bullard’s cabaret, and Earnest Hemmingway based one of his characters on Bullard.

He volunteered to fight for France again at the onset of World War II, and was wounded.

He fled to Spain, and ultimately crossed the ocean back to the United States, remaining in New York until he died in 1961. He worked as an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center in New York prior to his death.

Bullard appears on the Today Show in his Rockefeller Center elevator operator uniform.

He was ultimately made a Knight of the Legion of Honor by the French government.

More than 30 years after his death, the U.S. Air Force appointed him a Second Lieutenant.

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