WASHINGTON -- In solemn ceremonies Wednesday, the Smithsonian Institution will honor posthumously the first black American combat pilot, probably the most unsung hero in the history of U.S. wartime aviation.
Although Eugene Bullard flew more than 20 missions against the Germans over the Western Front in World War I, few Americans have heard of him. That may be because Mr. Bullard, nicknamed "the Black Swallow of Death," flew his missions with French forces; U.S. units barred him because he was black.
Barring Mr. Bullard "was a great injustice," said Dom Pisano, deputy chairman of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum aeronautic department.
Mr. Bullard's feats occurred 25 years before Gen. Benjamin Davis and his now-famous Tuskegee airmen broke the color barrier in World War II to become the country's first official black combat pilots.
"General Davis and his pilots broke the color barrier and proved to everyone that they were the equal of white pilots flying combat in World War II," Mr. Pisano said. "But they had to train in segregated units and fly in segregated units. It was rough, but Eugene Bullard was the precursor of all of them. He must have been quite a man."
Mr. Pisano said Mr. Bullard was born in poverty in Columbus, Ga., in 1894, a time when Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan were in full reign. To escape this hostile racial climate, Mr. Bullard stowed away on a ship to Scotland, making his way to France via England while supporting himself with odd jobs.
When World War I broke out, the 20-year-old Bullard enlisted immediately in the French Foreign Legion. He was wounded several times and eventually was given a medical discharge, but in early 1917, he re-enlisted as a trainee in the French air service.
"We know he flew at least 20 missions in a Spad biplane," Mr. Pisano said. "He's credited with one official kill -- a Fokker Dreidecker, the type that Manfred 'the Red Baron' Richthofen flew -- but quite likely shot down more."
Between the two world wars, he was a jazz drummer in Paris and also operated a nightclub. He fought with the French army again when the Nazis invaded in 1940 and subsequently worked with the French underground. In 1943 he was back in the United States, working as a perfume salesman in New York.
In 1954 he took part in ceremonies at the Arc de Triomphe in which he relighted the flame on the tomb of France's unknown soldier. France awarded Mr. Bullard the Legion of Honor, the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille Militaire, among many other decorations. He also was decorated for his work with the Free French underground in World War II.
Mr. Bullard retired in 1959 and died in New York two years later.