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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 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.

Now unable to return to the field, what does Bullard do? Retire and go home to safety, like any normal person would do? No way: He “transferred to aviation gunnery,” according to Fannin. And on May 5, 1917, he earned his pilot’s license (“number 6950 from the Aero Club de France), earning Eugene Jacques Bullard the historical distinction of becoming “the very first black fighter pilot in history.” He then was trained for advanced flight and combat, and assigned to Squadron 93 of the legendary Lafayette L’Escadrille, or “Flying Corps,” young American volunteers who flew for France. Flying Spad S.VII and Nieuport biplane fighter aircraft, Bullard flew “at least twenty missions over the Verdun sector,” and claimed to have shot down two German fighters.

Chivalette tells us that Bullard, by now a corporal, “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.’ ” We can get a sense of Bullard’s courage and daring from the encounter that led to his second kill, which took place in November 1917: “He shot down a German Pfalze after the pilot went into a classic Immelman turn, flying nose up and then turning backward, to attempt to come in from behind. Bullard ducked into a cloud bank and emerged below and to the right of his foe where he pulled in behind him and shot the German down.” This was one bad brother!

It will come as no surprise that after the United States entered the war, Bullard was abruptly transferred back to the 170th Infantry, most probably because the U.S. wouldn’t accept the presence of a black pilot, a policy that would not change until the ban was lifted in 1940. (The Tuskegee Airmen finished their training in 1942.) Bullard applied to transfer to the U.S. Air Force, but despite his proven record of superior combat skills, his “application was ignored for the duration of the war.”

Following the war, Bullard joined a jazz combo as a drummer, then became the manager of Le Grand Duc, one of the most popular of the early jazz clubs in Paris, famous as an initial venue for Ada “Bricktop” Smith. He used his experiences there to start his own jazz club, Club L’Escadrille, named after his unit in the air corps, after serving as the proprietor of Gene Bullard’s Athletic Club. In 1923, he married a wealthy French woman, Marcelle Straumann, and they had three children. You’d think that this fairy tale life would end there, right? Not for Eugene Bullard!

When World War II broke out, Bullard attempted in 1940 to rejoin his old infantry unit, the 170th. When that proved impossible, Bullard — now age 45 or so — joined the 51st Infantry at Orleans, and in June was “severely wounded” for the second time in combat with the Germans, while “his dozen or so compatriots were killed,” according to Chivalette. Bullard made his way to Spain, fleeing certain death at the hands of the occupying Nazis, and was evacuated to New York where he recovered. Afterward, he aided Charles De Gaulle’s Free French forces.