He was a “nobody,” just another black man trying to get by in a white man’s world.
He probably would have remained a nobody in the U.S. had it not been for a visit by an old friend.
In 1960, the President of France and international war hero, Charles DeGaulle, visited the United States. The French President made one request to the White House: He wanted to see an old friend, a French knight whose bravery and heroics helped defend the free world.
Not knowing this man, the White House had to search for this mysterious hero – what they found was a simple, elevator operator in New York. His name was Eugene Bullard.
It was then that the U.S. began to learn about Eugene Jacques Bullard, the first African-American fighter pilot in history.
Bullard was born on October 9, 1894 in Georgia. After witnessing his father nearly lynched (and for a supposed offense, which he had never committed), he remembered that his father told him that in France, a man is accepted as a man regardless of the color of his skin. So, the young Bullard stowed away on a ship, and eventually made his way to France. When World War I broke out, he joined the French Foreign Legion, then the Aéronautique Militaire and the Lafayette Flying Corps, where he distinguished himself, becoming the first African-American fighter pilot in history. When the U.S. finally joined the war, Bullard tried to rejoin his countrymen, but despite all his military honors, he was ignored because he was black.
Bullard would be seriously wounded several times, but he never gave up his fight for freedom and justice. At the beginning of World War II, he even worked as a spy, fighting against Nazi sympathizers. In 1954, France invited him to be one of three people to relight the everlasting flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider. In 1959, he was made a chevalier (knight) of the Légion d’honneur, which is France’s most coveted award.
When he finally returned to the U.S., no one knew him, and he lived in poverty and relative obscurity. The only reminders of his hero status in his humble apartment were a few photos and a framed case containing his 15 French war medals for valor.
When the French president finally got to meet the courageous French knight, he publicly and internationally embraced Eugene Bullard as a true hero.
When he died a year later, On October, 12, 1961, he was laid to rest with full honors by the Federation of French War Officers.
It would take his own country 33 years, but on August 23, 1994, Eugene Bullard was posthumously commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force.
Bullard “was a man who hesitated to speak of himself but one who stood on the principles of honesty and integrity. He treated everyone as he wished to be treated . . . He lived by the belief that all men were created equal and should be treated accordingly,” according to William I. Chivalette, Curator at the Air Force Enlisted Heritage Research Institute.
He is remembered for painting a red bleeding heart pierced by a knife on the fuselage of his plane. Below the heart was the inscription “Tout le Sang qui coule est rouge!” which translates to “All Blood Runs Red.”
Eugene Bullard, October 9, 1894 – October, 12 1961.
Jon S. Randal