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Rise and fall of black America's first fighter pilot

Out of America: Honoured by the French as a war hero, Eugene Jacques Bullard ended his days as a lift operator
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Strictly speaking, Black History Month here ended three days ago. But no excuses are needed if you're writing about Eugene Jacques Bullard. And anyway, why a single month to mark the contribution of African-Americans to their country? After all, as the actor Morgan Freeman has said, "Black history is American history" – even in the case of Bullard, whose contribution was not to the US but to France, where he spent the main part of a quite amazing life.

Black American expatriates are part of the myth of Paris in the early 20th century. The boxer Jack Johnson may have been the first, fleeing there with his white wife after being convicted in the US of transporting her "across state lines for immoral purposes". Then came the Jazz Age, Josephine Baker and La Revue Nègre, and the black musicians who spent time in the City of Light, among them Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong. And let's not forget the Harlem Hellfighters, the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment that fought in France in the First World War. Its regimental band, under James Reese Europe, became a sensation, infecting the French, it was said, with "ragtimitis".

A few black people did go the other way, including the Senegalese-born world champion boxer Battling Siki, famous for dressing in a dinner jacket to promenade his pet lion down the Champs Elysées. After losing his titles he moved to New York, where in 1925 he was gunned down, drunk, in the streets of Manhattan at the age of 28. Remarkable people, all of them. But none, surely, as remarkable as Eugene Bullard – stowaway, revue artist, boxer, aviator and multi-decorated war hero, nightclub owner and spy. He was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1894, the seventh of 10 children of a labourer named William Bullard. Aged just eight, he ran away from home after his father escaped a lynching. Four years later, he stowed away on a vessel bound from Norfolk, Virginia, to Scotland, before making his way south to England where he found work in a travelling troupe called Freedman's Pickaninnies.

Along the way he managed to become a decent boxer. After a fight in Paris, and a tour of Europe with the vaudeville act, Bullard decided it was Paris for him. The choice was pre-ordained. His father was from Martinique and young Eugene was already conversant with French. As with many other American blacks who found their way to France, the urge to escape Jim Crow discrimination at home was a driving motive. In France, his father had told him, "Man was judged by his merit, not the colour of his skin."

Hardly had he arrived than war broke out in 1914. Bullard signed up with the French Foreign Legion, and was on the front lines in the second battle of Artois and the Champagne Offensive of September 1915. So ravaged by then was his unit that he was transferred to the 170th Infantry Regiment, the so-called Hirondelles de la Mort. Hence Bullard's nickname, the Black Swallow of Death. The 170th fought at Verdun, where he was badly wounded.

Bullard recovered, but was no longer able to serve as an infantryman. Instead he was offered a chance to join the infant French Flying Corps. He quickly secured his wings, to become the first black American fighter pilot, and downed at least one, and almost certainly two, enemy planes. By 1917, the US had joined the war, and Bullard sought a transfer to his own country's airforce. But even on the distant soil of Europe, Jim Crow ruled. For all his qualifications, his application was ignored by the US military, and Bullard saw out the rest of the war in a non-combat role back in the 170th, his old unit.

He decided to stay in France, marrying the daughter of a countess and fathering three children, one of whom died. The marriage broke up, and his former wife died soon afterwards, leaving him to bring up his two surviving daughters. Bullard made a living working in nightclubs, eventually owning his own, Le Grand Duc, where he became friends with Baker, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and other luminaries of the so-called Lost Generation.

By then he was a celebrity in France, and another war only cemented his legend. This time he turned spy for France, informing on German visitors to the club until Paris fell in June 1940. Bullard fled south, only to be gravely wounded again when he joined a vain effort to defend Orléans from the Wehrmacht. Somehow he was spirited out of occupied France to neutral Spain with his daughters, and thence to the US he had left more than three decades earlier.

Back in New York, he was a nobody. France had awarded him 15 military medals and later accorded him the extraordinary honour of being one of three veterans to relight the flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe. But, in the US, Bullard, who never fully recovered from his wounds, subsisted in various anonymous jobs, the last of them as a lift attendant at the Rockefeller Center.

He was buried not with US but with full French military honours, in a corner of Flushing Cemetery in Queens. Only in 1994, almost 80 years after his application to sign up as a pilot was ignored, did he receive a posthumous commission as a lieutenant in the US Air Force.

Two days after his death in 1961, aged 67, The New York Times wrote, in one of those laconic obituary paragraphs that beg a book: "In 1954 Mr Bullard was chosen to relight the flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris. More recently he operated an elevator in the RCA building here." In fact, a couple of excellent ones have been written. The movie, however, still awaits.