09 Feb the Black Swallow of Death!
today’s blog will be a little outside of my normal film, art, and travel writing… I want to tell you a bit about a remarkable man named Eugene James Bullard. as a filmmaker, writer, and perpetually curious person—I’m constantly reading stories, exploring the internet, and trying to find interesting people. a while back I stumbled upon the story of “The Black Swallow of Death.” now, just the name was enough to intrigue me. swallows aren’t something you normally associate with death… and adding the adjective of black made it sound pretty metal, as in, super hardcore and bad-ass.
but as I read about the man, I was blown away by the life he lead and the things he did. since this is Black History Month, I thought it would be a great time to share with all of you.
Eugene was born in 1895 in Columbus, Georgia, then as a teen stowed away on a ship destined for Scotland. he made his way to Liverpool where he joined a minstrel group called “Freedman’s Pickaninnies.” he travelled throughout Europe, eventually settling in Paris where he made his living as a boxer.
then in 1914, war in Europe broke out… and Eugene volunteered to fight for his adopted country and was assigned to a regiment of the Foreign Legion, as overseas volunteers were placed with French Colonial troops. he then went on to fight in the Battle of the Somme. this was a terrible and protracted battle that took a horrible toll on human life. out of the 3 million men who fought almost 1 million were killed or injured. if you’re curious just how bad these WWI battles were, I’d recommend listening to Dan Carlin’s “Blueprint for Armageddon”. it provides an amazing in-depth and multifaceted look at the war, and really communicates the horrors of war. and to illustrate that, the Foreign Legion started 1915 with 21,887 men and ended with 10,683. then in 1916, Eugene himself was severely wounded.
even before he was fully healed, Eugene joined the infamous 170th French Infantry Regiment (you can see this insignia on his collar, which he wore throughout the rest of his career). the 170th had a reputation and had the nickname Les Hirondelles de la Mort, or “The Swallows of Death.” this was a regular French unit… so many people had been killed that colonial troops and foreign volunteers were needed in the ranks of the “normal” units. the 170th was sent to Verdun… which was another horrific battle.
it’s worth taking a moment on this… the battle last 303 days had nearly 1 million casualties.
again, Eugene was wounded.
but still, he didn’t quit. he didn’t go back to America. he stayed to fight… not only that, but he volunteered for the French Air Service. keep in mind aviation wasn’t even 15 years old! it’s there that he became the first African American military pilot. he served in a number of units, including the famous Lafayette Flying Corp. this unit was kind of portrayed in the movie “Flyboys”, although there are apparently lots of historical problems with it. during his 20 combat missions, Eugene was credited (unconfirmed) with shooting down two German planes.
here’s one thing I love in particular about his story:
he painted “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.”
and here’s one thing that breaks my heart:
when the USA entered the war, Eugene tried to join the American Air Service… but was denied because of his race. so he served out the remainder of the war in French Army. (the ban on black pilots was removed in 1940.)
some of the 15 honors he received from the French government:
Croix de guerre
Croix de guerre
Croix du combattant volontaire 1914–1918
Insigne des blessés militaires
Médaille Interalliée 1914–1918
Médaille commémorative de la guerre 1914–1918
now, if that wasn’t enough… when the Nazis invade France in 1940 he volunteered for the 170th again! the dude was 45 years old… but he still went out to fight. not only that, he was wounded AGAIN and had to escape through Spain for New York City.
sadly, his story does not have a fairy tale ending. after living a life of heroism and notoriety in France, he worked as an elevator operator in the Rockefeller Center until he died of cancer in 1961. he was buried with military honors in the French War Veterans’ section of Flushing Cemetery in NYC.
eventually, however the USA did right by Eugene and in 1994 he was post-humanously commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant in the US Air Force.
for more reading, please check out: Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s article, Jeff Edward’s article, and Eugene’s wikipedia page.
he was a truly remarkable man and deserves to be celebrated!
hope you enjoyed learning about him as much as I did.