“Despite his acclaim in France, Bullard received virtually no recognition in America.”
EUGENE JACQUES BULLARD may have been the 6,950th French military pilot to earn his wings during World War One, but he’s remembered as history’s very first African American aviator.
The 21-year-old volunteer graduated from flight training on May 5, 1917 after spending more than 12 harrowing months fighting in the French army on the Western Front. One of nearly 300 U.S. citizens to serve in France’s burgeoning air corps prior to America’s entry into the war, Bullard was eventually assigned to the famous Lafayette Flying Corps.
During his career as a fighter pilot, the Georgia native reportedly brought down as many as two German aircraft, however these victories remain unconfirmed. Although never earning the distinction of “ace”, Bullard still won many of his adopted country’s highest military decorations including the Légion d’honneur, the Médaille Militaire and the Croix de Guerre. After the war, he would become close friends with flying legend Charles Nungesserand and Jazz luminary Louis Armstrong. Yet despite his acclaim in France, Bullard received virtually no recognition in America. Worse, after returning to the U.S. as a wounded combat veteran and an aviation trailblazer, he died penniless in obscurity.
The War Years
Bullard, who was also part Creek Indian, learned the sting of racism at a young age. One of 10 children, he claimed to have once seen his father set upon by mob of whites and almost lynched.  Upon reaching his teens, young Eugene left behind a life of racial segregation and hopped a trans Atlantic steamer bound for Europe. He eventually landed in Paris where he made a living as a prizefighter.
Within weeks of Germany’s 1914 invasion of France, Bullard enlisted. Like other non-native volunteers, he was assigned to a French Foreign Legion regiment where he served with distinction as a machine gunner in action at Picardy, Artois and Champagne. During 1915, his 23,000-man unit was decimated, suffering more than 50 percent casualties.  Still standing, Eugene was transferred to the celebrated 170th Infantry Regiment and sent into battle at Verdun. Wounded in the opening weeks of the epic 10-month clash, Bullard was pulled from the line to recuperate.
In October of 1916, Bullard signed on with the French air service and began flight training. By the following year he was piloting Spads and Nieuports with the 93rd Escadrille against German warplanes over the Verdun sector. A capable aviator, Eugene quickly earned the nickname the “Black Swallow of Death” (an homage to his former regiment, the 170th known as Les Hirondelles de la Mort). Heralded as one of the only black pilots of the war (and a decorated one at that), he enjoyed notoriety in the French press.
Following America’s entry to the war, Bullard applied for a transfer to the nascent U.S. Army flying corps that was assembling in France. Despite his considerable combat experience, the American military rejected him because of his race. Eugene continued to fly with the French air service, but was eventually returned to the infantry after striking a superior officer while on leave. He served out the war in the rear echelon with his old unit, the 170th.
After the War
Following the Armistice, Bullard worked as a jazz drummer in a popular Parisian nightclub. Later he opened his own tavern. He named it L’Escadrille in reference to his wartime flying. Jazz legends and celebrities alike frequented the club. In the 1920s, Bullard married into a wealthy French family and had two children. The marriage ended in 1935.
In 1939, Eugene offered his services to France again, this time recording the comings and goings of his nightclub’s German patrons. When Hitler’s Panzers rolled into France in May of 1940, the middle-aged Bullard again answered the call. He joined the French Army in time to see action, but was grievously wounded in the defence of Orleans. As the country fell to the Nazis, Bullard was evacuated to Spain and was eventually repatriated to the United States.
A Forgotten Hero
Still recovering from his injuries, Bullard scratched out a meagre living during the war as a perfume salesman and a night watchman. Few in America knew of (or seemed to care about) his legendary exploits. After the Second World War, he was offered compensation from the French government for his lost business and injuries but remained in New York with his children.
In 1949, Bullard was one of more than a dozen people attacked by a mob at Peekskill, New York while waiting to get into a Paul Robeson concert. Robeson was considered a communist sympathizer at the time. Footage of the 54-year-old Bullard being beaten by two policemen was even captured on film.
In 1954, Bullard briefly returned to France for the 40th anniversary of the First World War. He received a hero’s welcome. For his service, Bullard was named to the Legion of Honour and was made a guest at a French military commemoration.
In his final years, Bullard worked as an elevator operator in Manhattan. He died of stomach cancer in 1961 at the age of 66.
Eventually, Bullard’s life’s story was recognized in the United States when he became the subject of a 1972 biography entitled The Black Swallow of Death. His contribution to aviation was later formally acknowledged too. In 1994, the USAF granted Bullard an honorary commission of 2nd Lieutenant.
Other Black Fliers
While Eugene Bullard is remembered for being the first African American fighter pilot in history, he isn’t the first black combat aviator. That honour goes to the Ahmet Ali Celikten of the Ottoman air service. Born in 1883 at Izmir, Turkey to African parents, Ahmet joined the Turkish navy in 1904. Four years later, he went to the naval academy and was made an officer. In 1914, he enrolled in flight school and became a pilot in the Ottoman air corps in 1916 and a certified aviator before Bullard. Details of Celikten’s record as an combat flier are unclear.
The first black flier of the British Empire was likely the Jamaican born William Robinson Clarke, dubbed “the Pilot of the Caribbean” by the RAF. According to the Royal Aero Club Trust of the U.K., the 22-year-old aircraft mechanic turned aviator earned his wings sometime in April of 1917, predating Bullard’s May 5 pilot registration by at least five days. According to Jamaican sources, Clarke was just one of a handful of black pilots from the West Indies to serve in the British air force during the war.