by Major William Carraway, Historian, Georgia Army National Guard
The Museum of Aviation at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, hosted a ceremony honoring the life and service of Eugene Bullard, the first African American fighter pilot and veteran of two world wars. Colonel Dawson Plummer, commander of the 194th Armored Brigade based at Fort Benning, Georgia and a graduate of the Tuskegee Institute spoke of Bullard’s legacy and enduring impact.
“We all owe a great deal of gratitude to Lieutenant Bullard for being a true pioneer, not only in the aviation community but for how he persevered over discrimination and proved that anybody can do anything if they put their mind to it.”
Five members of the original Tuskegee Airmen joined 22 of Bullard’s family members, senior military leaders and French dignitaries in the tribute organized by the Georgia World War I Commission. Consul General Vincent Hommeril, Consul General of France in Atlanta, offered insight into the international reach of Bullard’s story.
“Bullard’s life and exploits are symbolic of the strong ties that link France and the United States, nations that have long worked together to promote democracy and freedom,” said Hommeril. “May this statue honor his accomplishments and remain as a living symbol of French and American friendship for years to come.”
The ceremony concluded with the unveiling of a bronze statue of Bullard on the grounds of the museum. Colonel Ato Crumbly, the first African American commander of the Georgia Air National Guard’s 116th Air Control Wing thanked the Georgia World War I Commission and others who contributed to the day’s events and predicted that the Bullard statue would inspire future generations.
“When people walk by (the statue), read the name, then Google it and learn about his legacy, it is going to continue and propagate, and the word will spread.”
Bullard, the son of a former slave, was born in Columbus, Georgia, on October 9, 1895. Leaving a troubled home in 1906 at the age of 11, Bullard wandered for six years seeking opportunity but finding discrimination and racism in a segregated Jim Crow society. In 1912, Bullard stole aboard a ship bound for the United Kingdom. Making his way to London, Bullard found work as an entertainer and boxer. In 1913, he visited Paris for a boxing match and elected to stay, having found the French culture to his liking.
In August 1914, Germany declared war on France. Bullard enlisted in the French Army in October 1914, nearly three years before American troops entered combat. Bullard was seriously wounded in March 1916, while serving with the French 170th Infantry Regiment, 48th Infantry Division. Recovering from his wounds, Bullard volunteered for aviation service and completed his flight training in May 1917. Bullard flew more than 20 combat missions before the end of the war.
After the armistice, Bullard remained in France where he worked as a musician and nightclub manager. When Germany invaded France in 1940, Bullard again enlisted as an infantryman. He was again wounded in action and returned to the United States the following month after escaping German-held France. Despite his fame overseas, Bullard faded into obscurity in his home country. In 1961, shortly before his death, Bullard, a decorated veteran of two world wars, whom Charles De Gaulle had dubbed a Knight of the Legion of Honor, was working as an elevator operator in New York City. He died October 12, 1961 at the age of 66.
In the decades following his death, the story of Bullard’s life and service has received greater attention. In 1989, Bullard was inducted into the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame. Five years later he was recognized with a second lieutenant’s commission in the U.S. Air Force. Now, more than 100 years after his historic first flight, his statue stands as an inspiring beacon for future generations.
Speaking at a reception following the statue unveiling, Maj. Gen. Tom Carden, Adjutant General of the Georgia Department of Defense, spoke to the family of Eugene Bullard, the Tuskegee Airmen and all those who contributed to the dedication of the statue.
“They say it’s never too late to do the right thing and if I have ever seen an example of those words in action, I have seen it here today at this great museum,” said Carden. “I want to personally thank you for your service, your sacrifice and for making sure our state never forgets Eugene Bullard and what he has done for our country.”