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One of the greatest American flying aces of World War I never flew for the United States. All of his medals and military decorations were bestowed by the French.
Eugene Jacques Bullard, the world's first black combat pilot, born in 1894 in Columbus, Georgia, the grandson of a slave. A childhood dream was to live in France, because he he had been told that bigotry was unknown there. So Bullard sailed to Europe as a stowaway, and in 1914 enlisted in the French Foreign Legion, where he earned the nickname Black Swallow of Death. After recovering from serious wounds received at Verdun, Bullard arranged transfer to the French Flying Corps.
When the United States entered the war in 1917, it was announced that the American pilots serving in France would be accepted in the U.S. air corps and commissioned as pilots. Bullard applied but his application was ignored. Bullard remained in the French Flying Corps. Engaged in many dogfights, his plane was once forced to land behind enemy lines. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre among several other decorations. Despite this he was unexpectedly permanently grounded - on charges of insubordination, clearly a case of bigotry in his beloved France. He served the rest of the war in the French infantry.
After the Armistice, Bullard worked in France as a bandleader, and subsequently married a French countess, ran an athletic club and his own nightclubs. During World War II he joined the French Underground. After being wounded at Le Blanc, he returned to the U.S., working at a number of menial jobs.
Among the many medals he was awarded was the Legion d'Honneur - France's highest honor, the equivalent of our Medal of Honor in the United States.
He lived his last years in a cluttered Harlem apartment, where he died in 1961. He was buried in the French War Veteran's Cemetery in Flushing, New York.
Provided by Jim Thompson of African-American Heroes.
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Updated: 12 March, 2004