Eugene Bullard, pioneering African-American aviator who flew for France in WWI
The first African-American combat pilot flew not for his country, but for France. Born in the segregated south of the United States at the turn of the 20th century, Eugene Bullard moved to Paris and became one of a handful of black pilots to fight in World War I.
The way Eugene Bullard told it, he was always destined to come to France.
He grew up hearing stories of his father’s ancestors on the French Caribbean island of Martinique, and of the white French-speaking neighbours who supposedly adopted him, raised him Catholic and told him about a place called France. Perhaps Eugene, his lucky son, might even go there some day, William Bullard suggested.
Eugene would make it to France; he would even risk his life for it, and in ways that no black American had ever done before.
France would repay him with medals and glory that he never got back home. People would even begin calling him Eugene “Jacques” Bullard instead of Eugene James.
So is it any wonder, when he came to write his memoirs, racing against the cancer that would eventually kill him, that he saw his fate as interwoven with France – the place where he made his name, and made history?
But it’s clear he started in the kind of circumstances you want to get out of. Born in the cotton town of Columbus, Georgia, in 1894, to loving but poor parents with ten children to feed, he grew up with slavery in living memory and segregation in full force.
At eight or nine years old, he was at home when a mob came looking for his father, who had fought with a white foreman at work, and who now waited silently inside, a loaded shotgun in hand, until the attackers eventually left.
Three years later, Bullard ran away, and a few years after that he stowed away on a merchant ship bound for Europe. In 1912, in his mid-teens, he landed in the Scottish port of Aberdeen and discovered, as he put it, “a new world”.
He made his way south to London, picking up work on the docks or in music halls and eventually boxing for money. By November 1913, he was prizefighting in Paris.
World War I broke out nine months later.
The United States wasn’t yet involved, but Bullard volunteered for the French Foreign Legion. He was trained as a machine gunner and sent to the front in northern France, where he served alongside soldiers from the French mainland as well as its colonies in North and West Africa.
Between 1915 and 1916 he fought in some of the war’s most brutal battles: the Somme, Champagne, Verdun.
In the last of these he was wounded so badly his days in the infantry were over. Pulled off the frontline and sent to recuperate, he wasn’t ready to finish fighting.
As Bullard tells it, he bet a friend $2,000 that he could join the French air force. He won.
Bullard enrolled in the Aéronautique Militaire in October 1916. Originally signed up to be a gunner, he quickly switched to more glamorous pilot training and got his wings in May 1917.
“By midnight every American in Paris knew that an American Negro by the name of Eugene Bullard, born in Georgia, had obtained a military pilot’s licence,” he wrote years later, recalling the heady night he celebrated, wearing his blue flying uniform out on the town.
Sent into combat right away, Bullard flew some 20 missions in the months that followed and is believed to have shot down at least one German plane.
That made him one of a tiny number of black fighter pilots involved in World War I, alongside Pierre Réjon of Martinique, also flying for France; Jamaica-born William Robinson Clarke, who flew for Britain; Domenico Mondelli of Eritrea, part of Italy’s air force; and on the other side, Ahmet Ali Çelikten, an Afro-Turkish pilot defending the Ottoman Empire.
But Bullard was the only black American to fly. At the time, the US military was segregated as starkly as the rest of society, with black servicemen assigned to manual labour and denied the chance to climb the ranks or fight on the frontlines.
The French military, in contrast, needed all the fighters it could get by the time the United States entered the war on the side of France and its allies in April 1917.
Accustomed to deploying soldiers of colour from its colonies, France was willing to train black Americans for combat duty – whether in the air force like Bullard or in land warfare like the legendary Harlem Hellfighters, an all-black infantry regiment that spent longer in the trenches than any other American unit its size.
But US authorities were uneasy about the achievements black soldiers were racking up under French command, and what they might start expecting from their own country.
When Bullard applied to transfer to the all-white US Air Service as a trained pilot in 1917, he was rejected.
The excuse given was a technicality: he didn’t have a high enough rank. But historians agree with Bullard when he says the true reason was racism.
Bullard would have kept flying for France, but soon afterwards he was kicked out of the air force. The circumstances aren’t clear, but it appears he argued with a white French officer.
He went back to the French infantry for the rest of the war.
Embraced by France
When the armistice was signed on 11 November 1918, it marked the beginning of what Bullard called his “golden years”.
Awarded several medals for his service, he returned to Paris a war hero. Like many black Americans of the time, he was full of praise for the country where he felt like he was finally treated as an equal.
In fact France was far from colour-blind, according to WWI historian Jennifer Keene, as the often thankless way it treated its own African troops attests.
But African-American soldiers – exotic allies from a powerful foreign nation – received a much warmer welcome, not least because pointedly rejecting segregation allowed France to claim the moral high ground even as the US was taking the lead in world politics.
“By the end of the war, African-American soldiers symbolised to the French the best the United States had to offer France in terms of wealth, vigour, and selfless aid, and the best France had to offer the world through its dedication to equality, fraternity and liberty,” Keene writes.
Paris attracted other black veterans, creatives, intellectuals and adventurers after the war, and Bullard became a prominent figure among them.
He ran bars and nightclubs in Montmartre and Pigalle, booking black musicians to play jazz and serving pancakes and sausages to patrons who stayed long enough for breakfast.
He hired Langston Hughes to wash dishes and befriended Josephine Baker and Louis Armstrong. He opened an athletic club and took up drumming. He got in fights with people who threw around racist slurs.
And he married a white French woman and had two daughters with her – something that could have got him imprisoned, or worse, in the US.
‘A true French hero’
The “golden years” lasted until the late 1930s, when Europe was once more at war.
Bullard spied on Nazi agents at his bar, L’Escadrille – “the Squadron” – and enlisted to fight with his old regiment, at the age of 46.
But he was soon injured and, with the Germans invading France, he escaped to Spain, Portugal and finally the US.
France awarded him another clutch of medals for volunteering in World War II and, in 1954, invited him to return to Paris to kindle the flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe, alongside fellow veterans.
Five years later, President Charles de Gaulle made him a knight of the Legion of Honour and declared him “a true French hero”.
The phrase is apt: there was no hero’s welcome for him in the US. Settling in New York, Bullard lived the final years of his life unknown to the American public, working as a security guard, a docker, an elevator operator.
When he started writing his memoirs, “All Blood Runs Red”, it was for a country that had little idea of his place in history. The autobiography was never published.
Bullard died of stomach cancer soon after completing it, in October 1961. He was 66.
He was buried with military honours in the French veterans’ section of a New York cemetery.
Whether by destiny or by default, Bullard died a French hero.
In September 1994, he was appointed an officer of the US Air Force, 33 years after his death. It didn’t make him an American hero; without permission or public acknowledgement, Eugene James “Jacques” Bullard had been one all along.