The entire story of Eugene Bullard, the first black combat pilot, is still a mystery as the precise facts are in dispute. Did he shoot down five enemy aircraft or two? Was his father a French speaking slave from Martinique and was his mother a Creek Indian? Did he really travel with an English band of troubadors doing pickaninnie performances? Was he a professional boxer and a professional and influential jazz drummer? The answers are generally “yes” but also depend on whom you ask; but no matter the degree to which he participated in these activities, it is a testament to this Renaissance man.
Born in 1894 in Columbus Georgia, his father barely escaped a lynching that Bullard witnessed, and the rednecks of south Georgia inundated him with enough fear that he fled home at 8, lived on the streets and moved around the country doing odd jobs. He lived with people who took him in and offered him a place to stay but he was looking for a place his father called France. Bullard was a chameleon, becoming whatever he needed to at the time, he even took to horses and rode a horse for a famous handler. When he had just turned 11 he stowed away aboard a German cargo vessel the Maltheus, at Newport News and made his way to Scotland. The captain, rather than throw him overboard, worked him in the coal room of the ship’s engine.
But a dark, dank environment like a cargo ship’s coal room would never hold a free spirit like Bullard. Back on the street, effusive with charismatic charm, traveling troubadors invited him to do a pickaninnies performance in Paris and off he went. In Paris, he stood on ground his father talked about. A place on the Earth where black men and white men live and work together and there is freedom for all. But he had work to do as an entertainer and he sang and he danced and rode horses.
Bullard made it to the streets and it is said that he was so charismatic he could fall in with any crowd long enough to find employment and room and board. At one point he was running errands for bookies and even later took up boxing. He boxed for a while and found the money “wasn’t worth the aggravation.” But he worked in a boxing gym and at one point owned one and ran it for a few years and sold it for profit.
Bullard spoke French because his father was a Martinique native and spoke French as a matter of course. He spent a long time in Paris, and as history tells us, a gunshot in Sarajevo thrust all of Europe into a massive bloody war. Austria invaded the Balkans, and the French, allied with Serbia, went to their aid. Bullard signed up for the French Foreign Legion and made it to the ranks of this august and feared expeditionary force. How he did it I can find no reference but he talked his way into the main French force and found himself at one of the turning point battles on the bank of the Meuse River at Verdun. There 250,000 died in five days in December 1914. Another half a million were wounded, among them Eugene Jacques Bullard. He received the Croix de Guerre, and a military retirement commission.
That wasn’t enough fighting for Bullard. He talked his way into the Lafayette Flying Corps in the French Aéronautique Militaire as a gunner/observer that sat in the backseat — and once he won that position he talked himself into the pilot seat. Bullard graduated flight school and was assigned to 93 Spad Squadron late in 1917. Over 20 missions he earned the nickname the Black Swallow of Death apparently for his daring in the air. He shot down at least one, probably two and maybe up to five planes, for certain a Fokker Dreidecker and mostly likely a Pfalze scout plane. The Pfalze tried an Immelman turn and Bullard escaped into a cloud bank and returned out of it to surprise the German airman looking for him out of his turn. His SPAD had an image of a dagger through a heart and the saying: “Tout Sang Qui Est Rouge…” All Blood Runs Red. He was oft reprimanded for taking chances and derring-do.
Bullard had an argument with an officer and was demoted and transferred to the 170th French Infantry.
The exact injury was to one of his legs. Apparently an American captain in Paris bet him he could not learn to fly with the injury. Sometime thereafter Bullard returned, found the man and collected his winnings.
Bullard sought to join the US Army Air Corps as a pilot but that was a dead end. American law prohibited Black military aviators. Period. In addition to his Croix De Guerre, he had received the Legion of Honor, and the Medaille Militaire for bravery and a military retirement commission.
He stayed in Paris and learned a new skill, drumming for jazz bands. He became good enough to play with bands until he found himself the owner of a jazz bar in Paris. Le Grand Duc was his place, a fancy upscale establishment attended to by the cool crowd, sartorial splendor, dashing romances and international entertainers were regulars.
Handsome and articulate and dashing, a man who spoke French and English and German, who grew up poor in the deep south became quite the bon vivant. It is said he became friends with Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes and Louis Armstrong, and even translated for Louis Armstrong. He married a French Countess, Marcelle Straumann and had two daughters, Jacqueline and Lolita.
When World War II broke out Marcelle wanted to escape to the countryside and Bullard wanted to stay and act as a spy for the resistance, which he did, over hearing German officer’s conversations in his bar, little did they know he was fluent. Eventually war changes everything. His countess wife left him and he was granted custody of the girls who stayed with him in Paris.
As the war wound down, he had to flee his broken country looking for work. He left first alone on foot, then met a refugee who saw the limping straggler and gave him a bike. Riding a bicycle, he made it to Portugal and hitched a ride to the US on a Red Cross boat. His daughters joined him soon thereafter.
His life wound down in Manhattan. He sold perfume for a while, and eventually got a job as an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center. Once he went back to France to try and recover his old bar but it had been destroyed and the French government settled with him. In 1949, while attending a Paul Robeson Concert in Peeksville, NY, Bullard was knocked to the ground and beaten with truncheons by three law officers and a concert attendee. Photos of the beating were later published in Susan Robeson’ biography of her grandfather, The Whole World in His Hands: a Pictorial Biography of Paul Robeson.
Eugene Jacque Bullard was ensconced in his later years in his modest New York apartment, his daughters were both married and on Oct. 13, 1961, Eugene Bullard died of stomach cancer and in very modest means. The French government honored him in later years by making him a Chevalier (French Knighthood). He was buried with full military honors in his legionnaire’s uniform and lies in the cemetery of the Federation of French War Veterans in Flushing, NY.