The First African American Combat Pilot Was Not A Tuskegee Airman.


Eugene Ballard, the only black pilot in World War I, in French uniform.
Eugene Ballard, the only black pilot in World War I, in French uniform.

Hollywood tends to rehash the same old tales when there are so many amazing stories untold, so many lives unremembered, so many deeds that happened in a vacuum of time. This is one Hollywood missed.

I can’t really tell Bullard’s story here because it is too big. It is a story about a life lived so large, so bravely, so creatively that one would be hard put to find a more interesting one. So I want to introduce you a story not so much about a warrior, but of a man who lived a life uniquely, was so successful at so many things that he fit in with one historic crowd after another, and had skills from combat pilot, to jazz drummer, to boxer, to spy. The precise history of Eugene Bullard is still a mystery as the precise facts are in dispute. Did he shoot down five enemy aircraft or one? Was his father a French speaking slave from Martinique and was his mother a Creek Indian? Did he really travel with an English band of troubadores doing pickaninnie performances? The answers are generally “yes” but also depend on who you ask; but no matter the degree to which he participated in these activities, it is a testament to this Renaissance man.

Born in 1894 in Columbus Georgia, his father barely escaped a lynching that he witnessed, and the rednecks of south Georgia inundated him with enough fear that he fled home at 8, joined an English troupe and moved around the country doing odd jobs. When he had just turned 11 he stowed away aboard a German cargo vessel at Newport News and made his way to Scotland. The captain, rather than throw him overboard, worked him in the coal room of the ship’s engine.

But a dark, dank environment like a cargo ship’s coal room would never hold a free spirit like Bullard. The traveling troubadors invited him to do a pickaninnies performance in Paris and off he went. In Paris, he stood on ground his father talked about- a place on the Earth where black men and white men live and work together and there is freedom for all. But he had work to do as an entertainer and he sang and he danced and rode horses. At one point, it is said he served as a jockey.

Bullard made it to the streets and my guess is that he was so charismatic he could fall in with any crowd long enough to find employment and room and board. At one point he was running errands for bookies and even later took up boxing. He boxed for a while and found the money “wasn’t worth the aggravation.” But he worked in a boxing gym and at one point owned one and sold it for profit.

Bullard spoke French and I suppose it is a guess whether he took it up and learned it quickly as he did everything else in his life or he spoke French because his father was a Martinique native and spoke French as a matter of home life. He spent a long time in Paris, and as history tells us, a gunshot in Sarajevo thrust all of Europe into a massive bloody war. Austria invaded the Balkans, and the French, allied with Serbia, went to their aid. Bullard signed up for the French Foreign Legion and made it to the ranks of this august and feared expeditionary force. How he did it I can find no reference but he talked his way into the main French force and found himself at one of the turning point battles on the bank of the Meuse River at Verdun. There 250,000 died in five days in December 1914. Another half a million were wounded, among them Eugene Jacques Bullard. He received the Croix de Guerre, and a military retirement commission.

That wasn’t enough fighting for Bullard. He talked his way into the Lafayette Flying Corps in the French Aéronautique Militaire as a gunner/observer and once he won that position he talked himself into the pilot seat. Bullard was assigned to 93 Spad Squadron late in 1917.  Over 20 missions he earned the nickname the Black Swallow of Death and apparently for his daring in the air. He shot down at least one, probably two and maybe up to five planes, for certain a Fokker Dreidecker and mostly likely a Pfalze scout plane [ “probably a D.III. ” says BillT in comment thread- Ed] The Pfalze tried an Immelman turn and Bullard escaped into a cloud bank and returned out of it to surprise the German airman looking for him out of his turn. His SPAD had an image of a dagger through a heart and the saying:  “Tout Sang Qui Est Rouge…” All Blood Runs Red. He was oft reprimanded for taking chances and derring-do.

Bullard had an argument with an officer and was demoted and transferred to the 170th French Infantry.

The exact injury was to one of his legs and I am still looking for the details. Apparently an American captain in Paris bet him he could not learn to fly with the injury. Sometime thereafter Bullard returned, found the man and collected his winnings.

Bullard sought to join the US Army Air Corps as a pilot but that was a dead end. American law prohibited Black military aviators. Period. In addition to his Croix De Guerre, he had received the Legion of Honor, and the Medaille Militaire for bravery and a military retirement commission.

He stayed in Paris and learned a new skill, drumming for jazz bands. He became good enough to play with bands until he found himself the owner of a jazz bar in Paris.

Handsome and articulate and dashing, a man who spoke French and English and German, who grew up poor in the deep south became quite the bon vivant. It is said he became friends with Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes and Louis Armstrong, and even translated for Louis Armstrong. He married a French Countess, Marcelle Straumann and had two daughters, Jacqueline and Lolita.

When the war broke out Marcelle wanted to escape to the countryside and Bullard wanted to stay and act as a spy for the resistance, which he did, over hearing German officer’s conversations in his bar, little did they know he as fluent. She left him and he kept the girls with him in Paris.

As the war wound down, he had to flee his broken country looking for work. He left first alone riding a bicycle, made it to Portugal and hitched a ride to the US on a Red Cross boat. His daughters joined him soon thereafter.

His life wound down in Manhattan. He sold perfume for a while, and eventually got a job as an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center. Once he went back to France to try and recover his old bar but it had been destroyed and the French government settled with him. In 1949, while attending a Paul Robeson Concert in Peeksville, NY, Bullard was knocked to the ground and beaten with truncheons by three law officers and a concert attendee. Photos of the beating were later published in Susan Robeson’ biography of her grandfather, The Whole World in His Hands: a Pictorial Biography of Paul Robeson. Eugene Jacque Bullard was ensconced in his later years in his modest New York apartment, his daughters were both married and on Oct. 13, 1961, Eugene Bullard died of stomach cancer and in very modest means. The French government honored him in later years by making him a Chevalier (French Knighthood). He was buried with full military honors in his legionnaire’s uniform and lies in the cemetery of the Federation of French War Veterans in Flushing, NY.

Sources and Citations:

Sammons, Vivian Ovelton, Blacks in Science and Medicine, Hemisphere Publishing, 1990.

Chicago Tribune, October 11, 1992.

Los Angeles Sentinel, December 7, 1994.

Robeson, Susan. Paul Robeson:The whole World in His Hands

Herbert Molloy Mason Jr., High Flew the Falcons: The French Aces of World War I, New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1965.

Lloyd, Craig. Eugene Bullard: Black Expatriate in Jazz Age Paris. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2000.



7 thoughts on “The First African American Combat Pilot Was Not A Tuskegee Airman.”

  1. Very nice! The only previous reference I’ve seen to Bullard was in the old American Heritage hardcover series sometime back in the late ’50s / early ’60s.

    Just one nit to pick: Pfalz was also an aircraft manufacturer — the scout (probably a D.III) Bullard shot down wasn’t made by Fokker.

  2. Lets’ go back ..even Further! How many know about the brave, black soldiers, of…The Confederacy?! What is truly outstanding…is the last time these Civil War vets got together for a reunion, (ca) 1901, it was reported that White Confederate soldiers welcomed them to the reunion, joined with them to swap stories and socialize, and even provided them with tents to stay in. Now you probably don’t hear much about them, cause its not politically correct, (or socially expedient,) to report the truth. Their stories are being erased from history classes in our schools, the same way The Socialists of The old USSR, wiped out the memories of generations, in order to stay in control of the population. (“..for their own good”) Think! Today…we have the internet. That scares many, now doesn’t it?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *