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Eugene Bullard was born on 9th October 1895, the seventh of ten children, in Columbus, Georgia. He was a teenager when, in an attempt to escape racial discrimination after seeing his father narrowly escape a lynching, he stowed away on a German freighter.

He eventually arrived in Aberdeen and worked his way south through the United Kingdom, before visiting Paris and deciding to settle in France. While living in Europe, he earned a living as a boxer and music hall entertainer.

The Swallows of Death

When the First World War started, Eugene was 19. He enlisted in the French Foreign Legion in October 1914 and by 1915 was a machine gunner who had seen combat on the Somme. Eugene would go on to fight in many well-known battles of the war, including the Second Battle of Artois in May and June of 1915 and the second Champagne Offensive later that year from September to November.

Eugene was transferred to the Metropolitan French Army, to the 170th French Infantry Regiment, which was nicknamed Les Hirondelles de la Mort – The Swallows of Death.

It was while serving with the Swallows of Death that Eugene was badly injured at the Battle of Verdun, attempting to take a message from one officer to another. Despite this injury, when Eugene had recovered, he volunteered again in October 1916, this time for the French Air Service. He was trained as a pilot and received his licence in May 1917, becoming one of the first black military pilots.

Military Pilot

As a pilot, he flew in over twenty combat missions with the Lafayette Flying Corps, but when America joined the war, the United States Army Air Service took over the Americans who were serving. A medical board was convened to check each pilot and Bullard was not accepted for the Air Service of the American Expeditionary Forces – because he was black.

He ended up returning to the Swallows of Death and remained in service until after the Armistice, earning the Croix de guerre, amongst other honours, from the French government.

When Eugene was discharged, he returned to Paris and became a nightclub manager, eventually becoming an owner, counting Louis Armstrong and Josephine Baker amongst his friends.

The Second World War

When World Word II started, he began to spy on the Germans who frequented his nightclub, on the request of the French government.

Eugene volunteered for service when the Germans invaded, but was wounded. Despite this, he managed to make it to neutral Spain and from there, back to America in 1940. His fame did not follow him and after the war, he found his nightclub had been destroyed.

With the compensation from his club, Eugene settled in New York. In 1949, Eugene was caught up in the Peekskill riots, an attack which was caught on camera and shown in various documentaries.

Later Life

Eventually, Eugene became an elevator operator in the Rockefeller Centre, where no one had any idea about his actions in the First World War or his inter-war fame in Paris.

Eugene died of stomach cancer on 12th October 1961, at 66 years of age. He was buried with full military honours in the French War Veterans’ section of the Flushing Cemetery in New York. Before his death, Eugene was interviewed by the Today Show, leaving behind an invaluable resource about the black experience in both wars.

Posted in: Today We Remember
There But Not There