In August of 1917 Eugene Jacques Bullard, an American volunteer in the French army, became the first black military pilot in history and the only black pilot in World War I. Born in Columbus, Ga., on Oct. 9, 1894, Bullard left home at the age of 11 to travel the world, and by 1913 he had settled in France as a prizefighter. When WWI started in 1914, he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion and rose to the rank of corporal. For his bravery as an infantryman in combat, Bullard received the Croix de Guerre and other decorations.
During the Battle of Verdun in 1916, France suffered 460,000 casualties and Bullard was seriously wounded. While 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, and he flew combat missions from Aug. 27 to Nov. 11, 1917. He distinguished himself in aerial combat, as he had on the ground, and was officially credited with shooting down one German aircraft. Unfortunately, Bullard -- an enlisted pilot -- got into a disagreement with a French officer, which led to his removal from the French air force. He returned to his infantry regiment, and he performed non-combatant duties for the remainder of the war.
After the war, Bullard remained in France as an expatriate. When the Germans invaded France in May 1940, the 46-year-old Bullard rejoined the French army. Again seriously wounded by an exploding shell, he escaped the Germans and made his way to the United States. For the rest of World War II, despite his lingering injuries, he worked as a longshoreman in New York and supported the war effort by participating in war bond drives.
Bullard stayed in New York after the war and lived in relative obscurity, but in France he remained a hero. In 1954 he was one of the veterans chosen to light the "Everlasting Flame" at the French Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe, and in 1959 the French honored him with the Knight of the Legion of Honor.
On Oct. 13, 1961, Eugene Bullard died and 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 Sept. 14, 1994, the secretary of the Air Force posthumously appointed him a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force.
Additional Reading Eugene Bullard: Black Expatriate in Jazz-Age Paris by Craig Lloyd, 2000.
The Black Swallow of Death: The Incredible Story of Eugene Jacques Bullard, The World's First Black Combat Aviator by P.J. Carisella and James W. Ryan, 1972.