The turbulent life of Jacques Bullard

Veteran: Jacques Bullard
Artist: Michael Koulermos
Writer: Margret Mandell 

Stowaway, boxer, combat pilot, nightclub owner, spy, elevator operator.

Born in Georgia in 1895, a young man named Eugene Jacques Bullard, ran away from home to join a group of gypsies. The nomadic lifestyle suited him, and it wasn’t long before he found himself living in Paris, taking up boxing, and facing opponents in the ring. 

He would face many more opponents throughout his life.

Still living in Paris as World War l broke out, he joined the French Foreign Legion, earned two medals for bravery and went on to become a combat pilot. Flying fearlessly, his pet monkey as his co-pilot, Bullard earned the nickname, “black swallow of death”.

Despite his stellar military record, he was denied a transfer to U.S. forces.

Grounded, Bullard became owner of two Parisian jazz clubs. Located in Montmartre, the clubs would later become popular with German officers during World War II. Little did they know that the suave owner, who happened to be fluent in German, was also an agent for the French counterintelligence.

After the war, Bullard returned to his home country and faced one adversary he couldn’t conquer - racial prejudice.

Despite being a French national hero and chevalier (knight), he was forced to take a series of odd jobs in New York City, including elevator operator in the RCA building.

He died in Harlem in 1961. 

It wasn’t until 1994 that he was honored posthumously by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum as the first African-American fighter pilot in history.  

A long overdue recognition that was hard fought, even in death.