Eugene Ballard is considered to be the first African-American military pilot, although he never flew for the United States. Known as the “Black Swallow of Death,” the Columbus, Ga. native was born October 9, 1895.
Born to a father who was a former slave, Ballard lived a troubled childhood and ran away from home several times, allegedly living with a band of gypsies at one point. After witnessing severe racism, including the near lynching of his father, Ballard stowed away on a German freighter in 1912 when he was just 17, arriving in Scotland with the boat.
Ballard moved in and around London and Great Britain, working both as a boxer and as part of an African-American comedy troupe. After traveling to Paris, Ballard was so enamored with French culture that he made the country his home. In 1914 after the start of World War I, Ballard joined the French Foreign Legion and was part of an infantry division that fought in the Battle of Verdun where he was seriously injured.
While on the mend, Ballard bet a friend $2,000 that he could make it into the French military aviation corps, earning his French Air Service wings in 1917. He flew in around 20 combat missions and earned his nickname due to his fearlessness in battle while also reportedly taking down German aircraft. Ballard reportedly flew with a mascot monkey named Jimmy during his missions, one of many such fantastical tales connected to the pilot.
After the war, Ballard discovered jazz and became a nightclub owner. He also married a French woman and had two daughters although the union ended in divorce. During the early period of World War II, Ballard worked for a counterintelligence agency where he spied on German soldiers, a language he was also fluent in, and on French fifth column agents.
Ballard joined the French military once more during World War II and was reportedly injured yet again. Fearing German capture, Ballard escaped to New York City and settled in Harlem. He worked several odd jobs, including being an elevator operator for the RCA, home to “The Today Show” who had him as a guest on the program in 1954.
In 1959, the French knighted him as a war hero along with bestowing him with several other military honors. In 1989, he was inducted into the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame. And in 1994, because was denied an opportunity to be a pilot for the United States due to his race in 1917, Bullard was posthumously commissioned as a second lieutenant for the U.S. Air Force.
Ballard passed in 1961. He was 66.
PHOTO: Public Domain
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