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As the aviator singled out an enemy plane to attack, he was soon outmaneuvered and stalked by his nemesis. If it's true a person's life flashes before his or her eyes under stressful situations, young Eugene Jacques Bullard's life was already a full one. The fact he flew at all was an accomplishment in itself, but to be thrown into combat so early in his career proved the mettle of the man. (Courtesy photo)
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AF remembers ... The world's first black fighter pilot

Posted 2/15/2007   Updated 2/15/2007 Email story   Print story

    


by Duclan Golaszewski
53rd Wing Historian


2/15/2007 - EGLIN Air Force Base, Fla -- Feeling the heady freedom of flying an open-cockpit airplane at 12,000 feet, the young black pilot patrolled the hostile skies over Verdun, France. The fact he flew at all was an accomplishment in itself, but to be thrown into combat so early in his career proved the mettle of the man. 

It was a typical November day in northern France -- cold, misty, not conducive to day-dreaming of one's achievements; after all, the Germans flew the same skies looking for pilots to add to their list of kills. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the pilot's French squadron found itself under attack by German Pfalzes. As the aviator singled out an enemy plane to attack, he was soon outmaneuvered and stalked by his nemesis. If it's true a person's life flashes before his or her eyes under stressful situations, young Eugene Jacques Bullard's life was already a full one. 

Eugene was born Oct. 9, 1895, and was raised in Columbus, Ga. The seventh of 13 surviving children (three died in childbirth), he had a strict, but loving, father who raised the children on his own when his wife died at 37. Eugene also loved his family very much but longed to see the world, spurred on by the stories told by his father. 

At 16, he worked his way across the South until he reached Newport News, Va., where he stowed away on a vessel bound for Germany. Discovered by the captain, he was put to work hauling ashes from the boiler room. When the ship reached Scotland, the captain put Eugene ashore in a rowboat. 

Eugene made his way to France by working as a longshoreman, a vaudeville actor and even boxing. He finally arrived in Paris and adopted France as his own country. 

When the guns of August brought the German invasion of France, Eugene volunteered to serve in the French Foreign Legion. His first assignment was as a machine gunner with the 170th Infantry Regiment, "The Swallows of Death." He and his fellow Soldiers became part of the French forces fighting to hold Verdun. Here Eugene experienced his first taste of battle. He was wounded at least four times while serving in the infantry and even earned the Croix de Guerre, France's highest medal for bravery. 

A leg wound he suffered led him to fly a Spad for the French Chasing Squadron N-93. After flying Immelmann turns and loops, he achieved his first kill against the German pilot who singled him out. In all, he flew at least 20 missions for his squadron. 

When the United States entered the war in 1917, Eugene suffered the worst wound of his short life as an aviator. Americans flying with the French could transfer to American service, but Americans directing the U.S. war effort did not want him to fly for them because he was black. They also feared that if he continued flying for the French, he would prove to be a "bad influence" on blacks in the military. 

Despite the blow, he never stopped loving his homeland but continued to fight in his adopted country. When World War II commenced, Eugene resumed his battle against oppression by joining the French Resistance and Underground. 

Eugene, the world's first black fighter pilot, serves as an inspiration to Soldiers and Airmen everywhere. He won virtually all the medals awarded by the French government. Although he died in relative obscurity in the United States, the French continued to praise and admire him until he died in 1961. 

On Sept. 14, 1994, the U.S. Air Force promoted him posthumously to the rank of second lieutenant. His contributions to aviation and his African-American heritage are honored at an exhibit at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.



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