Barry Saunders

Saunders: Remembering a Marine who died way too young

A 2001 photo shows Porter Bullock Barnes reflected in the tombstone of her brother Dan Bullock at the Elmwood Cemetary in Goldsboro. Barnes is the youngest serviceman to die in action in Vietnam, having entered the service when he was fourteen years old and being killed when he was fifteen years old.
A 2001 photo shows Porter Bullock Barnes reflected in the tombstone of her brother Dan Bullock at the Elmwood Cemetary in Goldsboro. Barnes is the youngest serviceman to die in action in Vietnam, having entered the service when he was fourteen years old and being killed when he was fifteen years old. 2001 News & Observer photo

Nathan Bullock and his uncle, Dan Bullock, considered themselves veterans of war before they were out of elementary school. They loved playing “cowboys and Indians” and “combat” games in the woods in back of their homes in Goldsboro in the 1960s.

Separated in age by only five years, the two had been more like brothers than uncle and nephew. They played together every day.

When Dan was 11, his mother died, and Nathan remembers seeing him standing over his mother’s coffin, sobbing. Dan’s father remarried and moved the family to Brooklyn.

“The next time I saw him,” Bullock told me Monday, “he was walking down the street in his khaki Marine Corps uniform. We didn’t even know” he had enlisted.

“I was 9,” Bullock recalled.

A little quick ciphering shows that if Nathan was 9, then his Uncle Dan was – hmm, let’s see now – 14.

At an age when most boys are worried about pimples and how to work up enough nerve to ask that cute girl in third-period English class to be their girlfriend – and most kids Nathan’s age are still playing war in the backyard – Dan Bullock was fighting a real one 8,990 miles from home.

It’s not known if Dan Bullock was the youngest person to enlist in the military during the Vietnam War – I suspect Uncle Sam was not stringent about checking birth certificates of people trying to get into the war.

Dan Bullock is officially recognized, though, as the youngest person to die in combat serving our country during that war.

He was killed June 7, 1969. He was 15.

Nathan Bullock said he was not surprised that his uncle joined the service but at how soon he did.

Dan Bullock was born in 1953 but forged his birth certificate to show he was born in 1949.

He kept on going

Nathan Bullock talked about the horrible real injuries Dan would suffer in their pretend combat and other “childhood escapades” and how he’d continue playing. Once, Nathan recalled, “we were in an old, abandoned house playing, and I was holding the three-legged chair so Dan could jump up and go into the loft. … He jumped up and reached inside so he could pull himself up, and when he did he cut his hand on a nail really bad. The white meat was showing. He just wrapped it in a T-shirt,” Nathan said.

Despite the injury, Dan didn’t quit until he’d gotten what he was after.

“We got three pigeons that night,” Nathan said. “My mom cooked them just like you would a chicken.”

That was while Dan was home on leave, he said.

Dan Bullock’s sister, Gloria Jean Bullock Burroughs of Brooklyn, told the New York Daily News that he joined the Marine Corps because he hated New York and wanted to get an education.

His nephew, Nathan, also said Dan joined because his head was full of the visions of heroic Tuskegee Airmen and Buffalo Soldiers he’d heard his father and grandfather talking about.

After enlisting and making it through basic training, Bullock said, Dan “stayed with us while he was waiting for his orders. I remember he had money, and I remember he bought both of us a blue, double-breasted suit for Easter – only he had light blue socks and I had dark blue socks. … Right after that is when he left.”

‘He was 15’

Just as Dan Bullock didn’t quit after ripping his hand on the nail or after the other injuries he suffered, neither did he quit when the rigors of boot camp at Parris Island threatened to overwhelm his young body, or when he was taunted by older Marines in his squad who mistook his youth as a sign that he was slow intellectually.

“We knew something was wrong with him,” Cpl. Steve Piscitelli, retired from the Marine Corps, told me when I reached him by phone at his Paterson, N.J., home. “The older Marines who’d returned from combat, when they came back they … picked on him. … I had a higher rank, so I would stop them. But I also knew there was something wrong with him, but none of us knew what it was until he was killed.

“That’s when we found out he was 15,” he said.

Yeah, that’s what was wrong with him: He was a damned baby.

“He only lasted three weeks, from the 16th of May to the seventh of June,” Piscitelli said. “He was killed in a bunker with three experienced men.”

‘No holes in me yet’

The next time – the last time – Nathan Bullock saw his uncle, he was laid out in a coffin in his dress blues.

“When he would write letters home in those red, white and blue air mail envelopes,” Nathan said, “he would always end them by saying, ‘I had a buddy who got shot, but I don’t have no holes in me yet.’

“Even in his last letter,” Bullock said, “he P.S.’ed ‘I don’t have no holes in me yet.’ ”

Pfc. Dan Bullock was buried without fanfare in an unmarked grave in Goldsboro, but since then, his life and death have received some of the acknowledgment they deserve. Remember ’80s television talk show gabber Sally Jessy Raphael?

She paid for a handsome headstone for the previously unadorned grave, and a VFW post in Hawaii and what was formerly Lee Avenue in Brooklyn are both named in Dan’s honor.

Nathan Bullock said his efforts to have a highway named by the N.C. Department of Transportation in his uncle’s honor have thus far been unsuccessful, but just like his uncle, he’s not giving up until the mission is completed.

Whether or not the state recognizes Dan Bullock’s heroism or that of everyone who served, we should – and not just on Veterans Day.

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