Do you know who this is a photo of? Chances are you don’t, but don’t feel bad because probably not one American in one million does, and that is a National tragedy. His name is Eugene Jacques Bullard, and he is the first African-American fighter pilot in history.

But he is also much more than that: He’s also a national hero, and his story is so incredible that I bet if you wrote a movie script based on it Hollywood would reject it as being too far-fetched.

Eugene Bullard was born in Georgia in 1895.

Growing up in Georgia, Bullard saw his father nearly killed by a lynch mob and decided at the age of 8 to move to France. It took him nearly ten years of working through Georgia, England, and Western Europe as a horse jockey, prize fighter, and criminal before he finally moved to Paris.

When World War 1 broke out he joined the French Infantry.

He was seriously wounded, and France awarded him the Croix de Guerre and Médaille Militaire.

Eugene Bullard American Fighter Pilot

In 1916 he joined the French air service and he first trained as a gunner but later he trained as a pilot. When American pilots volunteered to help France and formed the famous Lafayette Escadrille, he asked to join but by the time he became a qualified pilot they were no longer accepting new recruits, so he joined the Lafayette Flying Corps instead.

He served with French flying units and he completed 20 combat missions.

When the United States finally joined the war, Bullard was the only member of the Escadrille or the French Flying Corps who was NOT invited to join the US Air Service.

The reason? At that time the Air Service only accepted white men. The United States was, as you probably guessed, deeply entrenched in it’s racist ways and Mr. Bullard had his fair share of it back home.

Eugene Bullard Racist Police
Mr. Bullard faced the same injustice that we face today…

Now here is the part that almost sounds like a sequel to ‘Casablanca’: After WWI Bullard became a jazz drummer in Paris and he eventually owned a nightclub called ‘L’Escadrille’.

When the Germans invaded France and conquered it in WW2, his Club, and Bullard, became hugely popular with German officers, but what they DIDN’T know was that Bullard, who spoke fluent German, was actually working for the Free French as a spy.

He eventually joined a French infantry unit, but he was badly wounded and had to leave the service.

By the end of the war, Bullard had become a national hero in France, but he later moved back to the U.S. where he was of course completely unknown.

Practically no one in the United States was aware of it when, in 1954 he was one of the veterans chosen to light the “Everlasting Flame” at the French Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe.

In 1959, the French government named him a national Chevalier, or Knight.

Mérite_national_chevalier_FRANCE_REVERS

In 1959, the French government named him a national Chevalier, or Knight.

In 1960, the President of France, Charles De Gaulle, paid a state visit to the United States and when he arrived he said that one of the first things he wanted to do was to meet Bullard. That sent the White House staff scrambling because most of them, of course, had never even heard of him.

Eugene Bullard Charles De Gualle
President Charles De Gaulle embraces Eugene Bullard in 1960

They finally located him in New York City, and DeGaulle traveled there to meet him personally. At the time, Eugene Bullard was working as … An elevator operator!

On Oct. 13, 1961, Eugene Bullard died and was buried with full military honors in his legionnaire’s uniform in the cemetery of the Federation of French War Veterans in Flushing, New York. On Sept. 14, 1994, the secretary of the Air Force posthumously appointed him a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force.

Read more about him here