Who Was the Black Swallow of Death?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Before the Tuskegee Airmen, there was Eugene Jacques Bullard.

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Eugene Jacques Bullard (National Museum of the Air Force)

Editor's note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.

(The Root) -- Amazing Facts About the Negro No. 20: Who was the first African-American fighter pilot?

In the early years of the 20th century, W.E.B. Du Bois once wondered aloud when -- and if -- the emerging film industry in Hollywood would discover the treasure trove of compelling stories buried in the archives of African-American experience. I'm not sure which stories the great Du Bois had in mind, but it's hard to beat the life and times of Eugene Jacques Bullard as the stuff of which great action films are made. So, for any black filmmaker looking for a heroic life to chronicle, this column is for you. If ever a black adventurer's exploits were made for film, these are it. The truth of Bullard's life is much stranger than fiction. Django's got nothing on this brother.

Eugene Jacques Bullard was born in 1895 and died in 1961. His incredible feats have been written about by William I. Chivalette and Caroline M. Fannin, both of whose research is the basis for this column, while P.J. Carisella and James W. Ryan published a biography titled The Black Swallow of Death: The Incredible Story of Eugene Jacques Bullard, The World's First Black Combat Aviator, and Craig Lloyd published another biography, titled Eugene Bullard: Black Expatriate in Jazz-Age Paris. Long before the much-heralded Tuskegee Airmen, Bullard became the first African-American combat pilot, seeing active duty during World War I.   

He was born in Columbus, Ga., one of 10 children. When he was 11, he ran away from home, and according to Fannin, "lived for a time with a band of [English-born] gypsies, who taught him to ride racehorses," working as a jockey in the South. In 1912, he ended up in Norfolk, Va., where, according to Chivalette, he "stowed away on a German ship bound for Aberdeen, Scotland."

In Liverpool, he joined a group of traveling minstrel performers called "Freedman's Pickaninnies." Somehow, he learned the skills of boxing while performing with the Pickaninnies, and "under the auspices of African American welterweight champion Aaron Lester Brown, 'the Dixie Kid,'" won his first fight in 1913. After touring in Russia, Berlin and throughout Europe, Bullard and the "Pickaninnies" ended up in Paris, where he would remain for much of the remainder of his life.

With the outbreak of war in 1914, Bullard enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. He was 19. He served in the Moroccan Division of the Third Marching Regiment, first as a machine gunner "in some of the bitterest fighting on the Western front," Fannin tells us, including at the Somme front, "where 300,000 Frenchmen were lost by the end of November," according to Chivalette. Then in 1915, Bullard was transferred to the 170th Infantry of the French Army, whom the Germans nicknamed "the Swallows of Death" because of their heroism, and from which he earned his nickname, "the Black Swallow of Death," due to his fearless courage. 

His unit faced its most dangerous combat at Verdun, which the Germans "code named Verdun Operation Execution Place." Chivalette says that "In the 10 months of Verdun more than 250,000 died, 100,000 were missing, and 300,000 had been gassed or wounded." Bullard later remarked, "I thought I had seen fighting in other battles but no one has ever seen anything like Verdun -- not before or ever since." It was hell. For a "crippling thigh wound" received at Verdun on March 5, 1916, Bullard was awarded the prestigious Croix de Guerre and the Medaile Militaire.  

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 We should understand how very dangerous combat was for Bullard: In one battle of the Champagne Offensive, according to Chivalette, "five hundred men began the battle, but … only 31 remained -- a 94 percent casualty rate." Bullard, who said he received "a little head wound" in the fighting, was one of those few survivors. While recovering from his wounds, Will Irvin interviewed Bullard for the Saturday Evening Post. We can only imagine the reaction of white Americans reading about the heroism of this black man, at the height of the Jim Crow era, when American armed forces remained strictly segregated, and black combat opportunities severely limited.

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