James Bullock’s job as a Marine posted in Pearl Harbor was to haul ammunition stored in a mountain cave down to ships being serviced.
The morning of Dec. 7, 1941, he and a few others were raising the American flag just before 8 a.m. when he heard the buzzing of approaching planes. The Japanese flag on the side of the aircraft was evident, and as he told his wife, Rose Marie Bullock, he saw everything that happened.
A few days later he had a different job.
As the charred bodies surfaced from the sunken ships, he was among the soldiers tasked with recovering their remains, making sure to remove the dog tags before bringing the bodies to the mass graves.
Bullock died last month at 93, and it was only in the past few decades that he spoke much about his experiences in the war. He was more known for the career he had with the state, working as senior deputy attorney general for 24 years, a career that spanned five attorneys general. Yet his time in the military informed the rest of his life, his family said. Far from the gruff, stoic Marine stereotype, he was known for simply wanting to help and take care of people.
Bullock enlisted in the Marines at 20. Until then he had lived in rural Robeson County, one of nine children on a tobacco farm. With no electricity and no indoor plumbing, he studied by oil lamp.
When Bullock finished with his service, he quickly enrolled at Wake Forest College on the G.I. Bill. In five years, he managed to earn both undergraduate and law degrees while working at a local mill. His was the night shift, 11 p.m. to 4 a.m.
“He worked like a dog,” Rose Marie Bullock said.
While in college, Bullock married his first wife, Estelle, whom he knew from high school. They had three sons and were married more than 30 years before she died from cancer – bringing on such deep heartache that he suffered from angina.
He met his second wife, also a widow, at the attorney general’s office, and they welcomed one another’s grown children into their lives to become a singular family.
“He had my coffee ready for me every morning when I got up,” Rose Marie Bullock said.
One of Mark Bullock’s sharpest memories of his father is of a time he and his two brothers went with him to the grocery store. On the way home, in the pouring rain, they noticed a couple walking on the side of the road. After dropping off the bags and his children, he went back to the car. When asked where he was headed, he answered he was going to offer those folks a ride.
Bullock had a hard time turning away from someone in need. The desire to do right took him far professionally.
“He was very keen on making sure the laws served the people and were in accordance with the Constitution,” Mark Bullock said.
Bullock managed to remain in the attorney general’s office under five different AGs, regardless of how their political views meshed.
“He’d say, ‘You look after the politics, I’ll look after the law.’ He was not a politician,” Rose Marie Bullock said.
Said Mark Bullock: “He had a longtime secretary, and she estimated that by the time he retired, more laws on the books in the state of North Carolina had been written by my father than by anyone else.”
When Bullock wasn’t upholding state law, he was golfing. For years he golfed his age. In his retirement he reveled in spending hours in his garden. His stepson, Mark Jones, marveled at his stamina. Until last year, Bullock was still doing push-ups every morning, walking, gardening, then golfing nearly every day.
He was also a man of great faith, Rose Marie Bullock said. He became a role model to others in their church without being overbearing or intrusive about his ideas.
He did, however, become more outspoken about his wartime experiences. Bullock began visiting the classes of his grandchildren to tell his story, though he made sure the details he shared were age-appropriate.
“He worked all of his life very hard, but he was a Marine forever. This was instilled in him,” Rose Marie Bullock said.
“He was a happy person, he never put people down. He tried to lift people up.”
News researcher David Raynor contributed.