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Eugene Bullard, the first African-American Combat Pilot

Posted by Sean Daly on Nov 10, 2023
Photo of Eugene Bullard, the Croix de Guerre, two biplanes in a dogfight

For Veterans Day — also called Remembrance Day or Armistice Day — we tell the story of Eugene J. Bullard, the first African-American combat pilot, who flew for France in World War I — but was refused a transfer into the US Army Air Corps due to prejudice. Learn about his adventurous life: jockey, stowaway, vaudeville performer, boxer, infantryman, pilot, jazz drummer, nightclub impresario, and spy — then soldier again, then Free French and civil rights activist!

Eugene Jacques Bullard (1895-1961) was a small, wiry man with a larger-than-life story: an African-American born in poverty in the South with only a rudimentary education who ran away from home in his early teens, stowed away to Europe, and remade his life in France as a boxer, soldier, America’s first (ond only!) African-American pilot in WWI, musician, and nightclub owner. Along the way, his energy and enthusiasm, his friendliness and willingness to learn, his hard work and insistence on being respected and on his rights, helped him find friends who assisted at critical junctures.

Born Eugene James Bullard on October 9, 1895, in Columbus, Georgia to a dockworker and teamster who had been born into slavery during the Civil War on the property of nearby plantation owner Wiley Bullard, Gene as he was called (and “Honey” by his father, as the lucky seventh child) lost his mother Josie at the age of seven. His father William, a man with a strong sense of dignity, instilled in young Gene the importance of self-respect and a deep desire for justice in the Jim Crow South, in a period when lynchings were commonplace and proponents of the “Lost Cause” were increasingly erecting Confederate memorials. Gene was very affected by an incident in his youth when his father had seriously injured a white foreman at work in self-defense and drunken rowdies had come to the family’s home threatening death as his father guarded the door in darkness with a shotgun. William’s employer and neighbors provided for the family until the incident blew over, but for Gene, dreams of escaping took form.

Gene’s father often spoke to his children of his family’s French Caribbean origins — Haiti or Martinique — with a few French words, mentioning that France was a country where Black people could enjoy equal rights under the law. Gene learned who the Marquis de Lafayette was; perhaps he learned that Lafayette had written the original draft of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Gene’s father also warned his children of the dangers of debt, and told his children that people should be judged by their actions, not by their skin color.

Stowaway to Europe

Gene’s sense of justice led him to reject a life in Georgia — and his father’s tales of French origins attracted him to Europe. Around the age of thirteen, he ran away from home and learned horsemanship from English visitors to the US, members of the Stanley Romany Gypsy family. Gene even ran town races as a jockey, earning prize money. He was hoping the clan would bring him to England, but when he learned they planned to stay longer, he decided to just travel to a port and stow away on a ship. After more adventures riding the rails and false starts, he bought provisions with money he had earned running errands for sailors and stowed away on a German steamer, the Marta Russ. The captain and crew took a liking to Gene, who hauled coal and helped the cook. Gene learned some German (which would be useful later), and upon arrival in Aberdeen, Gene was rowed ashore and not reported as a stowaway, courtesy of the captain.

Gene wanted to learn boxing and as he explored Glasgow and Liverpool he soon found a trainer to take him on. He reached London and throughout the UK, he marveled at the near complete absence of racism, in a European country which had never known enslavement of Africans (although their colonies certainly had). He joined a travelling vaudeville show which toured as far as Saint Petersburg, and visited Paris for the first time. He set his heart on returning to the City of Light and in 1913, Paris became his permanent home. Over the following year, always a quick learner, he perfected his French as he participated in the increasingly popular “boxe anglaise” scene in Paris.

Eugene Bullard in the French Foreign Legion
Eugene Bullard (right) in the French Foreign Legion, the Western Front, 1916.

War and the Foreign Legion

In late June of 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo started a chain of events which began the Great War, or World War I as we call it today. The United States took the isolationist path, not wanting to be drawn into the war, but Eugene Bullard wanted to do his part for his adopted country, and so signed on with the Foreign Legion for the duration of the war or five years, whichever came first (optimistic generals on all sides thought the war would be over quickly).

Soon, Gene was in the trenches fighting a new kind of industrial war nobody had prepared for: with exploding shells, poison gas, and machine guns which stopped infantry charges dead. Gene’s commanding officer noted his intelligence and excellent fitness and promoted him to sergeant, a machine gunner with a two-man crew. Gene killed hundreds of German soldiers advancing in no-man’s-land and experienced all the unimaginable horrors of the frontline trenches.

Gene’s Foreign Legion regiment had suffered so many losses, the surviving members were dispersed to regular infantry regiments. He chose, as some other American legionnaires did, to join the 170th infantry regiment. It was in the uniform of the 170th that he was gravely wounded by shrapnel, losing many of his teeth and with a serious leg injury, but he stayed at his post and was asked to lead a platoon under fire to deliver messages and carry back ammunition. Eugene Bullard was awarded the Croix de Guerre for exceptional valor, with a bronze star for a regiment-level citation. The medal was presented during his recovery in Lyon after extensive dental surgery, at a public ceremony with other wounded heroes of France, before an enthusiastic crowd of citizens.

Eugene Bullard and Marie Marvingt, 4th of July 1917, cimetière de Picpus, Paris
On July 4, 1917, Eugene J. Bullard obtained leave from his flight training and travelled to Paris to view the ceremony of US General Pershing of the American Expeditionary Force and the French president and minister of war laying wreaths at the grave of the Marquis de La Fayette in the Cimetière de Picpus. While there, Gene met Marie Marvingt, another larger-than-life pilot — as well as a skier, balloonist, mountain climber, swimmer, archer, cyclist, nurse, war reporter, and aerial ambulance designer. “La fiancée du danger”, who spent two months in the infantry disguised as a man and very late in life obtained her helicopter license, had won the Croix de Guerre as Gene had. Left photo Jacques Gabriel François Agié from Images Défense, right photo Agence Rol from BNF-Gallica.
Gene next to his Nieuport fighter plane with his pet monkey, Jimmy,
Gene next to his Nieuport 27 fighter plane with his pet monkey, Jimmy, who became the mascot of SPA 93 squadron when Gene continued at SPA 85. The duck symbol was the traditional insignia of the squadron. Gene later said he had painted his airplane with a bleeding heart pierced by an arrow and the motto “Tout sang qui coule est rouge” — All Blood Runs Red – but there are no known authenticated photographs of it. Source U.S. Air Force

From the trenches to the airs

The strong-willed soldier was ready to rejoin his regiment, but doctors declared he was unfit for infantry duty. It was then, through a wounded pilot he had befriended, that Eugene decided to become a pilot himself. At that time, most pilots were men from well-to-do families, some of which had been interested in aviation before the war. And there had never been a black pilot in the French air service. But Gene had advantages: he spoke French, was as strong as ever despite his injuries, had proven his courage, and knew machine guns, including how to unjam them. He was accepted into the air service as a gunner, then shortly afterwards requested and was granted transfer to the pilot track and promoted to corporal by Colonel Léon Girod, founder of France’s military flight schools.

At that time, just taking off in a single-seater airplane required courage. Planes were light and very fragile. There was zero armor to protect pilots. Some planes, such as the Nieuport, had rotary engines which allowed very quick right turns, useful to dodge enemy bullets but also potentially inducing a fatal spin. Gene was not noted as an exceptional pilot, but he obtained his brévet (pilots license) and joined the French SPA 93 squadron.

Eugene Bullard's aviation military record card.
“Eugène” Bullard’s aviation military record card. Source Ministère des Armées – Mémoire des Hommes
Eugene Bullard congratulated by his ground crew after his first combat mission
Gene was congratulated by his ground crew after his first combat mission. From “The Lafayette Flying Corps”, 1920 (

Gene flew at least twenty combat missions in a Nieuport and then the better Spad XIII for squadrons SPA 93 and SPA 85 (pilots were often shifted between squadrons). He claimed two victories which unfortunately were not confirmed, as in one case there wasn’t a witness and in the other case the enemy craft spiraled down over its own lines. He had been shot at and evaded his predators, he had avoided collisions; and perhaps most importantly, he had formed lasting friendships with his fellow pilots, treated as an equal.

In late 1915, the American community in Paris, impatient with the isolationism of the United States, set about creating two corps which — it was hoped — would gain headlines back home promoting the Allied side of the war without overly provoking Germany. Dr Edmund Gros of the American Hospital in Neuilly near Paris organized the American Field Service, a volunteer ambulance corps staffed with many young men from American universities, driving Ford ambulances entirely sponsored by donations for six-month hitches. The other initiative, also driven by Dr Gros and others, was a fighter squadron, at first called the Escadrille Américaine, renamed later (after German diplomatic objections) to the Escadrille Lafayette. From then on, all American flyers in French service were said to be in the “Lafayette Flying Corps”, not just the pilots in the actual fighter squadron.

Gene Bullard, pilot, in his uniform of the 170th infantry regiment and wearing his Croix de Guerre
As a pilot, Gene liked to wear his uniform of the 170th infantry regiment, with his legionnaire’s cap, and wearing his Croix de Guerre.

American bigotry catches up with Gene

Many of the pilots, such as Walter Bernard Miller who we have written about previously, were former ambulance drivers who knew what the war was like, had an aptitude for machinery, were well-educated, and spoke some French. When the United States entered the war on the side of the Allies in the spring of 1917, the poorly prepared US Army Air Service prepared to transfer in the combat experienced pilots of the Lafayette Flying Corps. Eugene Bullard, a wounded and decorated trench machine gunner with fluent French who had flown twenty combat missions, easily cleared the medical exam. But Dr Gros, by then a lieutenant colonel and liaison officer between the French and American armies, didn’t want any African-Americans near the segregated Air Service, or indeed in any American combat role at all. He forced the French military — desperate for American assistance in the war — to announce that there would be discrimination against all serving African-Americans in French service. The circulaire Linard — the Linard memorandum — caused a scandal in France when its existence was revealed, as it was against the founding values of the Republic.

The Linard memorandum
The infamous Linard memorandum showed how American liaison officers such as Lt. Col. Gros wanted to block any effort at integration with black soldiers. Published by W.E.B. Du Bois in “The Crisis”, May 1919. Du Bois interviewed twenty mayors of French towns, who unanimously refuted the rape accusation invented by Gros.

Gros searched for a reason to not only disqualify Gene, but to end his flying in any French squadron. He at first blocked Gene’s transfer on the basis that he was not a commissioned officer, only a corporal — an invented reason, as most of the Lafayette flyers weren’t commissioned officers, only being promoted when admitted into US service. Then, Gros seized on an incident in which Gene had defended himself from an abusive French officer — a nonevent for the French command, but a godsend for Gros who had found the necessary pretext to “bust” Gene who was grounded, then sent back to the 170th in a training role. Gene fought this racism as he could, but Gros carried the day. The US armed services remained segregated through World War II — in 1944, Free French units like the 1st Armored Division were even forced to remove black servicemen — until 1947 when President Truman put a stop to it. Dr Gros never ended his discrimination against Eugene Bullard; when the Lafayette Escadrille memorial was dedicated in Marnes-la-Coquette near Paris in 1928, Gene’s name was omitted from the memorial by Gros, and he was not invited to the ceremony. A furious former pilot brought Gene to the ceremony anyway.

Gene Bullard in Le Grand Duc nightclub, Montmartre, 1923
Gene Bullard in Le Grand Duc nightclub, Montmartre, 1923
Gene Bullard drumming at Joe Zelli's nightclub in Montmartre
Gene Bullard drumming in the Zig-Zag Band at Joe Zelli’s nightclub in Montmartre
Gene Bullard's athletic club handbill
Gene Bullard’s popular athletic club was open in the 1920s and 1930s
Gene & Marcelle's marriage register entry, 1923
Gene & Marcelle’s marriage register entry at the city hall of the 10th arrondissement, July 13, 1923. The couple honeymooned in Biarritz. Geneanet / / Archives de Paris

The Jazz Age in Montmartre, Paris — and a family

With the war over, and as sure as ever that France was a better place to live than the United States, Gene thrived in the postwar prosperity of the Roaring Twenties — les années folles — as African-Americans flocked to Paris to open nightclubs, bars, and dance halls with jazz music that took Paris by storm. The Lost Generation, artists, musicians, writers, and partygoers of all stripes reveled in the years before the stock market crash. Gene was well-known in Montmartre — as a boxer, as a decorated war hero and pilot — and with his fluency in French, he worked first as an artistic director, then nightclub operator in his own right. After a final stab at boxing, with two celebrated bouts in Cairo, he returned to Paris and took up the drums, although he was no Buddy Gilmore! He opened a bar, “L’Escadrille”, and an athletic club, a useful antidote for the energetic champagne-soaked party set. In 1923, he married Marcelle Straumann, the only surviving daughter of a fairly well-to-do grocer. Marcelle and Gene had something in common: they had both lost their mothers when children. The couple had daughter Jacqueline (1924), son Eugène Jr. (1926), and daughter Lolita (1927) together; sadly, Gene Jr. died in infancy.

Ada “Bricktop” Smith (fetched at Le Havre par Gene), Langston Hughes (hired as a dishwasher by Gene), Josephine Baker (an occasional babysitter of the Bullard children!), Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, and countless other African-American cultural figures knew Gene and when the stock market crash happened in 1929 and in its wake the Great Depression, Gene generously helped everyone in the community he could despite falling revenues.

By 1935, a decade after the death of Marcelle’s father, she and Eugene divorced and Eugene took custody of their daughters, away at boarding school near Orléans. Three years later, a French intelligence unit created to monitor Germans in Paris recruited Gene to spy on the German patrons of his businesses, which led to an incident where Gene was shot during a scuffle by a drunken Corsican accusing him of treachery — a wound which, incredibly, healed quickly.

Photo of Eugene Bullard in Paris, 1929
Eugène Jacques Bullard in 1929, Paris.

A soldier again, and escape into exile

When war came again, suddenly, in May 1940 following the months of the Phony War, Eugene brought his daughters back to Paris where he thought they would be safer. As the front collapsed, Gene headed south to rejoin his old regiment and fight. Officers remembered him and he was reissued weapons, but an exploding artillery shell which killed several fellow soldiers resulted in a serious back injury and he knew that as an African-American decorated French war hero who had killed many Germans, he was at great risk. With help from old friends, he made it to Biarritz — site of his honeymoon years earlier — and escaped to Spain, where he saw many German soldiers, then Portugal where he was able to take ship for New York. Worried sick about his teenage daughters, he activated his network and obtained assistance from the US Secretary of State in Washington and American consular officials who stayed on in Paris and helped get the girls out, also through Portugal. Jacqueline and Lolita completed their education and settled in the United States.

As for Marcelle, it seems Eugene told his daughters that she had died during the war, and Marcelle seems to have believed Gene and their daughters died in the war too. They never spoke again; Marcelle passed away in Paris in 1990.

Gene Bullard hugs his daughters upon their arrival from Europe, 3 February 1941
Jersey City, New Jersey, February 3, 1941: an overjoyed Gene Bullard hugs his daughters who were safely exiled from Nazi-occupied Paris through the intervention of US State Department diplomats.

The New York years

As Gene recovered from his latest war wound, he set about supporting the French war effort through Charles de Gaulle. Gene joined France Forever, an organization promoting the Free French forces, at a time de Gaulle struggled in London for recognition (the US had recognized Vichy France, and Roosevelt distrusted de Gaulle) and resources (to equip French soldiers who hadn’t been captured, and to unify and supply the different factions of the Résistance). Gene worked for the US Navy as a stevedore and a security guard during the war years. Charles de Gaulle was aware of Gene’s efforts for France in New York and never forgot them: they met in August 1945 in New York, and in Paris on May 8, 1954 when Gene lit the flame of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with other veterans and the general laid a wreath. And President Charles de Gaulle stopped for a word with Gene during a ceremony in New York on his state visit in April 1960.

After the war, Gene returned to Paris and tried but failed to win compensation for his lost businesses through the courts, his last chance to reestablish himself there. In New York, he worked as a distributor of French perfumes, was active in the French community and French-speaking St. Vincent de Paul Church on West 23rd St, and settled into his modest apartment in Harlem, decorated with memorabilia of his life in France. He attended reunion banquets with his fellow Lafayette pilots and visited old friends such as Louis Armstrong, who employed Gene as an aide and interpreter for his 1951 European 50-city tour. In August 1949 however, when attending a concert by Paul Robeson in a town thirty miles north of Harlem, Gene was brutally beaten by police and local thugs, an incident which made front page news in France.

Gene returned to Columbus, GA only once and was surprised at the changes over the previous forty years. He did not seek to meet his father’s old employer, and couldn’t forget that his brother Hector had been lynched in his absence by whites intent on taking his land.

Eugene J. Bullard assaulted by police and local thugs, Peekskill, New York, August 1949.
Eugene J. Bullard assaulted by police and local thugs, Peekskill, New York, August 1949.

Gene finally found an odd job that didn’t strain his bad back, and enabled him to keep his independence: as a modest elevator operator at Rockefeller Center, where the radio and television studios of the National Broadcasting Company were and are located. Staff had noticed that Gene proudly wore the Croix de Guerre and were astonished to learn that he had 14 other medals, including as a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur which the French Consul had awarded Gene in 1959; Gene was interviewed on radio and television. In 1961, Gene was invited to be the flagbearer and lay a wreath at a ceremony at the statue of Lafayette in Union Square and was occupied writing his memoirs, encouraged by an editor who understood the importance of this figure unknown in his native country. Gene took sick with intestinal cancer, but completed his writing in his English peppered with French words and expressions — including some misremembered facts, not surprising after such a full life. He died just days after his 66th birthday and was buried in the French military plot of Flushing cemetery in Queens.

Reunion banquet of the Lafayette Flying Corps in New York City, 1949
A reunion banquet of the Lafayette Flying Corps in New York City, 1949. The group liked to meet at the Lafayette Hotel until it was torn down.
Eugene Bullard on NBC radio discussing his 14 medals for military service, 1960
Eugene Bullard on NBC radio discussing his 14 medals for military service, 1960. Schlesinger Library, Harvard University
Eugene Bullard at home in Harlem.
Gene at home in Harlem.

Belated recognition

More than 60 years after his death, Eugene Bullard’s achievements are finally becoming better known in the United States. Ebony magazine published a long article about him in December 1967. His edited memoirs were rewritten and published as “The Black Swallow of Death” in 1969, in reference to his beloved 170th regiment which the Germans called “les hirondelles de la mort”. In 1990, a bronze bust of Gene by sculptor Eddie Dixon was commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. In 1994, the US Air Force posthumously commissioned Eugene J. Bullard as a second lieutenant, righting the racist wrong of 1917, and an exhibit about his life including his medals which his daughter Jacqueline donated was added to the USAF museum in Dayton, Ohio. In 2000, Craig Lloyd’s detailed biography was published after 13 years of research, with a 2006 printing unearthing new evidence of the machinations of Dr Gros against Gene; the author donated his extensive files to Columbus State University in Gene’s hometown. In 2016, a visitor center was erected at the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial in Marnes-la-Coquette west of Paris, with a permanent exhibit about Eugene Bullard. In 2019, a new biography by the late Phil Keith co-authored with Tom Clavin appeared, a statue of Gene by Gregory Johnson was unveiled at a USAF base in Georgia, and the French Consul in New York embellished Gene’s tombstone with the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d’Honneur.

Two well-written biographies of Eugene J. Bullard
Jet fighter tailfin of the SPA 85 squadron, Tours, with a portrait of Eugene Bullard and two fellow pilots of the squadron
Gene Bullard’s last squadron, SPA 85, has never forgotten him in their traditions. Source French Air Force
Eugene Bullard photo and photo of his gravestone in Flushing, Queens, New York City
Eugene Jacques Bullard was buried in the French military section of Flushing Cemetery, Queens, New York City. In 2019, the French Consul in New York added Gene’s two most important awards to the gravestone, the Légion d’Honneur from 1959 and the Croix de Guerre from 1916.

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Amazing man, overcoming adversity time and time again. An inspiration for any young child living in difficult circumstances

Wow! What an amazing person – a true hero whose story needs to be told in grade school classrooms!!

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