First African-American pilot a war hero during WWI
/ Published February 02, 2012
FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (AFNS) — After watching his father narrowly escape a lynching in early 20th century Georgia, Eugene Bullard would escape the confines of racial tensions and a segregated country to become the first African-American combat pilot and one of the first African-American heroes of World War I.
Bullard, who grew up in Columbus, Ga., as one of 10 children of a former slave, left his hometown as a teenager, stowing away on a ship bound for Scotland and moved to London to fulfill his dreams.
Before the war began, Bullard moved to Paris where he made a reputation for himself as a professional boxer. At the start of the war in 1914, Bullard enlisted in the French Foreign Legion where he was assigned to the 170th Infantry Regiment. Nicknamed the “Swallows of Death,” he and his unit would see heavy action, and during the battle of Verdun, Bullard was wounded twice. He was then sent to a Parisian hospital to recuperate for the next six months.
Bullard was promoted to the rank of corporal and was awarded the Croix de Guerre, and other war-time medals, for his bravery during combat. While still in the hospital, Bullard accepted a bet that he couldn’t get into the flying corps and in October of 1916 arrived at French gunnery school. A month later he talked his way into pilot training and earned his pilot’s license to become the first African-American aviator.
He reached the front lines as a pilot in August of 1917 flying more than 20 sorties in a Spad VII fighter biplane, with two unconfirmed kills to his credit. After a disagreement with a French officer he was eventually removed from the French air force and spent the remainder of the war back with his infantry regiment.
After the war, Bullard remained in France, got married, had two daughters, and purchased a bar on the north side of Paris. He was still living in Paris at the outbreak of World War II, and worked with French Resistance forces to spy on German troops who would patronize his bar. Considered too old to join the French army, Bullard found a way to escape from occupied France, and returned to the U.S. aboard a Red Cross ship in 1940.
In 1954, Bullard, along with two other French veterans, were invited by then French President Charles De Gaulle to light the flame of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. In 1959, he was honored with the Knight of the Legion of Honor.
When he returned to the U.S., he was never recognized as a war hero, and died in relative obscurity and poverty in Flushing, Queens, New York in 1961. While he never realized his dream of becoming a pilot in the U.S. military, he was finally recognized posthumously as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force in 1994.