Bullard was born in Columbus in 1894. His father, a former slave, told him the way to escape racial prejudice was to move to France. Bullard was a French last name, he added, and they had French ancestry. He moved to Atlanta alone and spent five years here. At 17, he sailed to Great Britain as a stowaway on a freighter and then became a successful boxer. He went to France the following year and continued to box.
When World War I broke out he joined the French Foreign Legion and was assigned to the French 170th Infantry Regiment, the “Swallows of Death.” It fought at the epic battle of Verdun. Bullard was wounded twice and spent six months recuperating in a Paris hospital. The French Army recognized his valor with a Croix de Guerre and other decorations.
While convalescing a friend bet him $2,000 he could not learn to fly. Bullard joined the French Service Aeronautique (Air Force), earned his pilot’s license on May 5, 1917 and duly collected the $2,000. He wanted to be a Lafayette Escadrille pilot but was rejected because of the prejudice of the unit’s American organizer.
Regardless, 10 days later, he posted to the French Escadrille. His plane’s insignia read “All Blood Runs Red,” and his nickname became “The Black Swallow of Death.” Bullard flew 20 patrols and claimed aerial victories over two German planes. Everything was going well, but then there was an “incident” involving Bullard and a French officer. Subsequently, the Service Aeronautique returned him to the infantry.
Post-war, Bullard stayed in France. In 1923, he married Marcelle Straumann, a French woman from a wealthy family. They had two daughters. He bought a bar named “Le Grand Duc” in Paris, and welcomed a who’s who of the Paris social scene and American jazz greats. Unfortunately, he and Marcelle separated in 1931.
In the late ’30s, French intelligence recruited him to spy on the Germans visiting his bar. When World War II started in 1939, Bullard was stilll running his bar. He was 45 but tried to join the French Army. After France fell to the Germans he biked to Portugal, sailed to New York and extricated his daughters soon afterward.
In 1954, at the invitation of French President Charles de Gaulle, Bullard and two other French veterans relit the flame of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc of Triumph in Paris. It was an exceptional tribute.
In New York, he was earning his living working as an elevator man at 30 Rockefeller Center. There he met the host of the NBC “Today” Show, filmed in the same building, who invited Bullard to tell his story on national television. He did so, and collected his vastly overdue 15 minutes of fame.
He was 66 when he died on Oct. 12, 1961. French veterans buried him under a French flag in New York City’s Flushing Cemetery. The Chicago Tribune called him “probably the most unsung hero in the history of U.S. wartime aviation.” Others noted his single-handed accomplishment was the equivalent of what the Tuskegee Airmen did in World War II.
Perhaps one day, Georgia’s Eugene Jacques Bullard will receive the full recognition he so richly deserves.
Narayan Sengupta lives in Smyrna. He is an amateur historian and passionate about preserving the legacy of America’s combat veterans.