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  • Writer's pictureHistoric Columbus

Eugene Bullard - Black Swallow of Death

SOURCE: Columbus’ Eugene Bullard, First African American Pilot in French History. Columbus Connections: A Collection of Wartime Stories by Lynn Willoughby (2007).


Born in a three-room shotgun house on Talbotton Avenue in 1895, Eugene Bullard was destined for a life of adventure and achievement unprecedented by southern Black men of his time. Growing up in Columbus at the height of Jim Crow segregation, Eugene witnessed the near lynching of his father and rankled under the racial contempt that enclosed his life as a boy. When he was barely a teenager, he had had enough. He hit the road, hiding under a gypsy’s wagon in a field in East Highlands neighborhood on his first night away from home. Armed with only a third-grade education, Eugene stowed away on a merchant ship bound for Britain in 1912. He had already toured Europe as a successful prize fighter when World War I broke out in 1914. Gene enlisted in the French Foreign Legion – one of only a dozen African Americans serving in France – on his nineteenth birthday. For two bloody years, he endured the arduous life of a foot soldier on the Western Front.

In the spring of 1915, while Bullard manned a machine gun along the Somme River, his worried father wrote the U.S. State Department, asking for its help in returning his boy to him. There must have been a mistake, he wrote, since Eugene was too young to enlist. Mr. Bullard, then living on Sixth Avenue in Columbus, implored authorities to “have him freed at once” and sent home to his family. Even though U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing personally forwarded Bullard’s letter to the American embassy in Paris, Eugene had broken no French statute, and the matter went no farther.

By the following spring, Eugene had entered the deadly battle zone at Verdun where three hundred thousand soldiers would perish. Before the German assault even began, the Germans rained wo and a half million artillery shells over the French army in just twelve hours. For the next two weeks, Bullard’s unit was caught in a grinding war machine where “thousand upon thousand died… as earth was plowed under, and men and beasts hung from the branches of trees where they had been blown to pieces.” Going without sleep, Bullard gunned down scores of Germans with his machine gun, and when it jammed, fired his carbine at close range. He lost all but four of his teeth in an explosion that killed his mates. Three days later, as Bullard was taking a message from one French officer to another, a second exploding shell knocked him into a dugout with a gaping hole in his thigh, requiring three months’ recuperation in a Lyon hospital. For this wound, he received the esteemed Croix de Guerre with bronze star in 1916.

Although the Columbus native was too disabled to return to war as a foot soldier, Bullard decided to go into aviation next. A White southern friend of his in Paris told him, “You know there aren’t any Negroes in aviation.” Bullard replied, “That’s why I want to get into it.” And that is how Eugene Bullard became the first Black pilot in French aviation history. Although this accomplishment was noted in European newspapers, it was never mentioned in his native country. Yet, Bullard flew at least twenty missions against the Germans.

He survived the Great War to become a nightclub owner in the Montmartre section of Paris. His patrons included Charlie Chaplin, Josephine Baker, Gloria Swanson, and the Prince of Wales. In World War II, Bullard re-enlisted and was wounded again. Afterward, he returned to his native land to live in New York. At some point, Bullard returned to Columbus to look up his family, but he found no trace of them. He died in New York in 1961.

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