Eugene Bullard, the World's First Black Fighter Pilot

Eugene Bullard made aviation history.
Eugene Bullard made aviation history. / Air Force Heritage Research Institute, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Eugene Bullard survived some of the deadliest battles in military history, became the world's first Black fighter pilot, and even had his own monkey sidekick—and all before the age of 30. He went on to spy on Nazis and fifth columnists, rub shoulders with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and earn the nickname "Black Swallow of Death." More than that though, Bullard was a pioneer who laid the groundwork for Black servicemen everywhere.

From Runaway to Prizefighter

Bullard was born on October 9, 1895, in Columbus, Georgia, to a former enslaved Haitian man and a Muskogee Creek woman. Slavery had been abolished in the South only 30 years prior and still cast a long, dark shadow. Bullard was no stranger to discrimination, hardship, and outright violence. At 10 years old, he witnessed his father narrowly escape a lynching; not long after, his mother died unexpectedly.

Bullard ran away from home when he was 11. By chance, he found a group of Romani in Atlanta, Georgia, known as the Stanley Clan. They took him in as one of their own. But after spending six years tending to horses and living a nomadic lifestyle, Bullard was ready for a change. He hoped to head to France—a place his father had never visited, but spoke of often.

At 17, Bullard stowed away on the Marta Russ, a German merchant ship bound for Europe. Shortly after departing the ship at port in Aberdeen, Scotland, he joined a vaudeville troupe where he performed as a boxer and quickly became one of Great Britain's most beloved prizefighters. But he still yearned for France.

Bullard would soon reach his goal. After some time with the troupe in Great Britain, he was booked for a fight in Paris in 1913. "When I got off the boat train in Paris, I was as excited as a kid on Christmas morning. Here I was in the place I had wanted to be and to see all my life. And it was wonderful," he wrote in his journal.

Because of his Haitian roots, Bullard was fluent in French. This, combined with Paris's liberal lifestyle, made him decide to stick around the City of Love for a while. But the start of World War I quickly changed his plans.

The First Black Fighter Pilot

Bullard Legionnaire Uniform.
Bullard Legionnaire Uniform. / USAF, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When France joined the war, Bullard wasted no time enlisting in the French Foreign Legion. He served in the 170th Infantry Regiment and fought in many of the Great War’s deadliest battles, though his service in the Great War came to a halt when he was wounded at the Battle of Verdun. After recovering in Lyon, he was given leave and went back to Paris, where he'd make a wager that would forever change the plight of Black servicemen.

Bullard bet a friend $2000 that despite being Black, he would join the French Air Service. He made good on his bet when the Aeronautique Militaire accepted him in the fall of 1916 and awarded him his wings the following May, making him the world's first Black fighter pilot.

After the U.S. entered the war, Bullard attempted to join the U.S. Air Force. However, despite his French military honors and extensive trench experience, he was unable to enlist. He continued to fight in France, where, thanks to his fighting skills and unbreakable spirit, he was given the nickname “The Black Swallow of Death.” Bullard was quoted as saying, “The United States is my mother, and I love my mother, but as far as France is concerned, she is my mistress and you love your mistress more than you love your mother—but in a different way.” Flying with Jimmy, his rhesus monkey co-pilot, Bullard served until his discharge in October 1919.

Leisure in Post-War Paris

With his military days behind him, Bullard became a staple of Paris's nightclub scene—first as a drummer at Zelli's, then as the manager of Le Grand Duc, a popular jazz club in post-war Paris that included Langston Hughes, Josephine Baker, and Louis Armstrong among its patrons and performers (not to mention friends of Bullard). In the late 1920s, Bullard was able to purchase Le Grand Duc. He later opened Bullard's Athletic Club, a gym that offered everything from massages to ping pong. But as the ‘20s rolled into the ‘30s, Bullard’s Jazz Age days of partying with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald drew to a close.

Thanks to his time in the first World War, Bullard had picked up a semi-fluency in German. This, along with his French and English skills, made him a great candidate for spying on Nazi sympathizers and French fifth columnists who frequented Le Grand Duc.

When World War II began, Bullard found himself back at the forefront of France, serving as a machine gunner in the 51st Infantry. After some time, he was severely wounded by an artillery shell. Evading capture by the Nazis, he was smuggled across the Pyrenees to neutral Spain. In the 1940s, Bullard sold his clubs in Paris and used the funds to go back to the U.S. "I can never forget how thrilled I was at the sight of the Statue of Liberty," he recalled.

A Quiet Homecoming

Bullard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris.
Bullard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris. / USAF, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Bullard settled in Harlem, New York. Over his first few years back stateside, he shuffled through odd jobs until landing as an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center. His life in New York was mostly quiet, apart from some media buzz generated after he was interviewed on the Today Show. To most people, he was just the man who pressed buttons in the elevator.

France, however, never forgot him. Over the next several years, the French showered Bullard with military honors. In 1954, he was chosen as one of only three men to relight the everlasting flame at Paris's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In the fall of 1959, he was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor, the highest French decoration, and Bullard's 15th honor. French president Charles de Gaulle even paid him a personal visit the following year while traveling the States.

On October 12, 1961, Bullard died of stomach cancer. He was 66 years old. It would be more than 30 years before the U.S. would recognize his bravery. In 1994, the U.S. Air Force made Bullard an honorary Lieutenant and acknowledged its mistake in denying his efforts to serve his country.