Oxford AASC: Photo Essay

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Early African American Aviators

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Eugene Bullard

Eugene Bullard in an undated photograph. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, image number 91-6283.


Eugene Jacques Bullard was born on 9 October 1894 in Columbus, Georgia. Shaken by the near lynching of his father in 1903 and seeking adventure in the world beyond Columbus, Bullard ran away from home in 1906. On 4 March 1912, after joining a group of gypsies and spending a few years tending horses, Bullard stowed away on a German merchant ship, the Marta Russ, which departed Norfolk, Virginia, bound for Aberdeen, Scotland. From 1912 to 1914, Bullard performed in a vaudeville troupe and earned money as a prizefighter in Great Britain and elsewhere in Europe. He boxed in a match in Paris for the first time in November 1913.

At the beginning of World War I in 1914, Bullard joined the French army, serving in the Moroccan Division of the 170th Infantry Regiment, known as the "Swallows of Death." This was the unit from which Bullard took the name "The Black Swallow of Death." Bullard rose to the rank of corporal and for his bravery as an infantryman in combat, Bullard received the Croix de Guerre and other decorations.

During the Battle of Verdun in 1916, Bullard was seriously wounded, one of 460,000 casualties that France suffered. While Bullard was recuperating, he accepted an offer to join the French air force as a gunner/observer, but when he reported to gunnery school, he obtained permission to become a pilot. After completing flight training, Bullard joined the 200 other Americans in the Lafayette Flying Corps. He flew combat missions from August 1917 to November 1917 and distinguished himself in aerial combat as he had done on the ground. He was officially credited with shooting down a German aircraft.

At one point, unfortunately, Bullard got into an argument with a French officer, and this disagreement led to Bullard being removed from the French air force. He then returned to his infantry regiment and performed non-combat duties for the remainder of the war.

Thus, in 1917 Bullard became the first African American combat pilot. He was not flying for his home country, the United States, but rather for France, the nation his father many years before had told him was friendlier to people of his race. Bullard was flying Caudron G-3, Caudron G-4, SPAD, and Nieuport aircraft, all with the famed Lafayette Escadrille, the crack French combat flight team. This was well before the United States had achieved the aviation combat sophistication already reached by both France and Germany.

World War I ended in 1918. Between World War I and World War II, Bullard remained in France, where he managed and owned nightclubs in the Montmartre section of Paris. Bullard emerged as a leading personality among such African American entertainers as Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong, and Sidney Bechet. In 1923, Bullard married Marcelle Straumann, the daughter of a wealthy white Parisian family, something he would not have been able to do in the Jim Crow United States. The couple had two daughters before separating in 1931. In the early days of World War II, when France was again at war with Germany, Bullard was an important member of the French Resistance. This group of people secretly fought against Germany, which was attempting to occupy France. Resistance members were spies and destroyed German equipment and supplies (Hart, 2005). When Nazi Germany conquered France in 1940, Bullard fled with his two daughters to New York City, where he lived until his death on 13 October 1961 (Hart, 2005). Eugene Bullard was buried with full military honors in his legionnaire's uniform in the cemetery of the Federation of French War Veterans in Flushing, New York. On 14 September 1994, the secretary of the Air Force posthumously appointed him to the rank of second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force.

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