AIR FORCE HISTORY: The Black Swallow of Death and the world’s first black fighter pilot

  • Published
  • By Howard E. Halvorsen
  • Air Force Sustainment Center Historian

America’s first black aviator did not fly for the country of his birth, America, but for his adopted country, France. Eugene Jacques Bullard was born in 1894 in Columbus, Georgia, and was the seventh of 10 children born to a black man from Martinique and a Creek Indian woman. Eugene said his father was an educated man who worked hard as a laborer but took the time to properly raise and teach his children, often in his native French, especially after Eugene’s mother tragically passed away when he was five. His father’s stories often told how in France every man is accepted as a man regardless of the color of his skin. When Eugene Bullard’s father was nearly lynched, this child of only eight years old decided to leave home and find this magical place: France.

It was 1902 and the young man wandered all over the southeastern United States doing odd jobs. At one point he displayed some skill in horseracing as a jockey and was able to put a little money away. When he was 12 years old he stowed away on a German ship bound for Scotland. After some hard times doing odd jobs, he found himself in Liverpool, England, where he was able to become a skilled boxer. Through years of lifting weights he went from bantam weight, to lightweight and eventually fought as a welterweight in both England and France. His first bout in France, boxing in Paris at the Elysee Montmartre, was Nov. 28, 1913. From the moment he first set foot in France he knew this was the place he belonged, and that first visit cemented his long-held aspiration of moving to Paris.

He ended up touring Europe with a traveling act called “Freedman’s Pickaninnies,” but he settled down in Paris and was soon employed in the world of boxing. Bullard picked up languages easily and helped set up matches for other boxers using his translating skills, in addition to his own boxing career. He finally had found his place on this Earth, making the most money he ever had in his life in a place that accepted him as a man. In fact, he found living in France “convinced me too that God really did create all men equal, and it was easy to live that way.”

Into this idyllic life, world events came crashing in. War. The Great War — what we call World War I today. Bullard was eager to serve for his adopted country, and on his 19th birthday he joined his fellow American expatriates in the French Foreign Legion, the toughest unit at that time in the world. Soon after training he was assigned to a unit that contained 54 different nationalities and fought in the toughest battles of the war. One unit with whom he served were referred to as “The Swallows of Death.” The fierce and lucky Bullard quickly became known as the “Black Swallow of Death.” The Legion often led the way which led to frightful numbers of casualties. For instance, at the Battle of Artois Ridge, Bullard’s company lost 80 percent of its strength. Later in September of the same year, 1915, 94 percent were lost in the Champagne Offensive. It was during the Battle of Verdun on March 5, 1916, that Bullard received the wounds that removed him from the ground war and subsequently awarded The Croix de Guerre and Médaille Militaire.

It was during his convalescence in Lyons that two interesting life events happened. One was his first bit of fame when he was interviewed by Will Irwin of The Saturday Evening Post. The second was the opportunity to become a flier. It was thought that Bullard’s wounds would keep him from walking again, but an American friend bet him $2,000 he could not get into aviation (he would never be able to rejoin the infantry) and become a pilot. He soon earned his wings on May 5, 1917, and collected his money. This made Bullard the first black fighter pilot in history.

He was soon assigned to the Lafayette Escadrille and was happy to find respect and friendship regardless of race and nationality. In this spirit, Corporal Eugene Bullard painted a red bleeding heart pierced by a knife on the fuselage of his Spad. Below the heart was the inscription “Tout le Sang qui coule est rouge!” Roughly translated it says “All Blood Runs Red.” His first mission was on Sept. 8, 1917, and he never missed a mission until the war ended. After the United States entered the war he took a flight physical and applied for a commission to fly for his home country, but the application was ignored. Fellow flying heroes like George Dock recalled him to be a humorous, brave, and self-reliant man and Charles Kinsolving noted that Bullard had no fear. Happily, all wars end…even this one. He decided to remain in Paris and soon married a French countess and fathered three children, though one passed soon after birth.

Normally that would be the end of the story. Yes, he opened a famous nightclub, Le Grand Duc, where Paris’ most famous entertainers would perform for the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gloria Swanson, and England’s Prince of Wales but that is not where the story ends. Once again, world events came crashing in. In 1939, war once again threatened the nation that had been so good to him. As a widowed father of three, it would have been easy for most to sit the war out. Instead, in July 1939 he joined the French Resistance. He was good with languages, including German, and was quite successful as the Germans pompously thought that no black man could properly understand their language. He even worked with the famous French spy Cleopatra Terrier and others.

However, at last German troops began to overrun Paris, so the single father of two fled with his children away from the fighting to Orleans only to find himself under fire there as well. He joined uniformed troops and quickly found himself both wounded and the only one left alive. Resistance friends doctored his wounds and smuggled him and his daughters to Spain where he was later medically evacuated to the United States. He was thrilled to finally be back home and became an elevator operator in Rockefeller Center, a position he would hold until he retired. Americans saw him every day and did not know they were in the presence of greatness. France never forgot.

In 1954, Bullard was requested to help relight the Eternal Flame of the Tomb of the Unknown French Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe. In 1959 he was named Knight of the Legion of Honor in New York City and was interviewed on the Today Show. President-General Charles de Gaulle, while in NYC, publicly embraced Bullard as a true French hero in 1960 when Bullard was 65 years old. Two years later, in 1961, Bullard lost a fight to an illness caused from the many wounds he received in wartime. Again France did forget as, with the tri-color of France draping his coffin, he was laid to rest with full honors by the Federation of French War Officers at Flushing Cemetery in New York. On Aug. 23, 1994, the USAF posthumously commissioned him a lieutenant. During his lifetime, Eugene Ballard was awarded 15 French war medals, including the Knight of the Légion d’honneur, Médaille Militaire, Croix de Guerre, Volunteer’s Cross (Croix du combatant volontaire), Wounded Insignia, World War I Commemorative Medal, World War I Victory Medal, Freedom Medal, and the World War II Commemorative Medal.

Sources include Air and Space Power Journal, Black Art Depot, “All Blood Runs Red” by Henry Scott Harris.