The Black Swallow of Death – History’s First African American Pilot Fought Racism (and the Enemy) in WW1
EUGENE JACQUES BULLARD may have been the 6,950th French military pilot to earn his wings during World War One, but he’s remembered as history’s very first African American aviator.
The 21-year-old volunteer graduated from flight training on May 5, 1917 after spending more than 12 harrowing months fighting in the French army on the Western Front. One of nearly 300 U.S. citizens to serve in France’s burgeoning air corps prior to America’s entry into the war, Bullard was eventually assigned to the famous Lafayette Flying Corps.
During his career as a fighter pilot, the Georgia native reportedly brought down as many as two German aircraft, however these victories remain unconfirmed. Although never earning the distinction of “ace”, Bullard still won many of his adopted country’s highest military decorations including the Légion d’honneur, the Médaille Militaire and the Croix de Guerre. After the war, he would become close friends with flying legend Charles Nungesserand and Jazz luminary Louis Armstrong. Yet despite his acclaim in France, Bullard received virtually no recognition in America. Worse, after returning to the U.S. as a wounded combat veteran and an aviation trailblazer, he died penniless in obscurity.
The War Years
Bullard, who was also part Creek Indian, learned the sting of racism at a young age. One of 10 children, he claimed to have once seen his father set upon by mob of whites and almost lynched.  Upon reaching his teens, young Eugene left behind a life of racial segregation and hopped a trans Atlantic steamer bound for Europe. He eventually landed in Paris where he made a living as a prizefighter.
Within weeks of Germany’s 1914 invasion of France, Bullard enlisted. Like other non-native volunteers, he was assigned to a French Foreign Legion regiment where he served with distinction as a machine gunner in action at Picardy, Artois and Champagne. During 1915, his 23,000-man unit was decimated, suffering more than 50 percent casualties.  Still standing, Eugene was transferred to the celebrated 170th Infantry Regiment and sent into battle at Verdun. Wounded in the opening weeks of the epic 10-month clash, Bullard was pulled from the line to recuperate.
In October of 1916, Bullard signed on with the French air service and began flight training. By the following year he was piloting Spads and Nieuports with the 93rd Escadrille against German warplanes over the Verdun sector. A capable aviator, Eugene quickly earned the nickname the “Black Swallow of Death” (an homage to his former regiment, the 170thknown as Les Hirondelles de la Mort). Heralded as one of the only black pilots of the war (and a decorated one at that), he enjoyed notoriety in the French press.
Following America’s entry to the war, Bullard applied for a transfer to the nascent U.S. Army flying corps that was assembling in France. Despite his considerable combat experience, the American military rejected him because of his race. Eugene continued to fly with the French air service, but was eventually returned to the infantry after striking a superior officer while on leave. He served out the war in the rear echelon with his old unit, the 170th.