Dan Bullock

Dan Bullock — Wikimedia Commons/findagrave.com

Dan Bullock was killed instantly, seems to be the case. But since the other three Marines in the 5-by-7-foot bunker with him at the An Hoa combat base were also killed, it’s hard to say for sure.

The night of June 6, 1969, had been quiet, and guarding the airstrip at Delta sector was supposed to be an easy watch. Some of the soldiers were even drinking beers.

Neal Rairden was a bunker or two down, just 15 yards away, when North Vietnamese commandos tossed a pack of explosives. “When the bomb went off that blew up their bunker, no one could’ve lived,” said Rairden, who was a private first class at the time. “I’m serious. It was the most horrific thing. It was a satchel charge you throw in, and blow the whole thing up.”

The other three soldiers in the bunker were men, as we generally define the term, but Bullock was not. Just 15 years old, he would be the youngest American killed in the Vietnam War. He had been there just a few weeks.

An article on the front page of The New York Times in 1969 explained: “Dan Bullock was born Dec. 21, 1953. When he enlisted in the Marines last Sept. 18, he was 14. Pentagon officials said his birth certificate had been adjusted to show the year as 1949 so that he could pass for 18.”

As his younger sister Gloria Bullock put it recently, her voice flat with the interceding 50 years, “He was a kid.”

Having moved with his family from Goldsboro, North Carolina, a few years earlier, after the death of his mother, Dan Bullock was living in New York City when he enlisted, against his father’s wishes. He apparently did not inform his family until he had his papers. Once he learned, Dan’s father, Brother Bullock, said that “his son’s enthusiasm about the service kept the family from notifying officials about his age,” according to The Times.

Despite his youth, he was physically solid — at about 5 feet 9 inches and 160 pounds — and managed to get through the notoriously grueling Marine boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, and then on to Vietnam without being found out.

He ended up in Quang Nam province, on the An Hoa combat base, 25 miles south-southwest of the coastal city of Da Nang. Much of Quang Nam was a “free-fire zone,” where U.S. troops were authorized to use their weapons at will.

Steve Piscitelli was a lance corporal in the Marines who had enlisted at 18. He met Bullock as the two arrived at An Hoa and were assigned to Second Platoon of Fox Company, which had been depleted by heavy losses.

Piscitelli noticed Bullock’s awkward reticence right away.

“He’s bigger, stronger, faster, but I felt like he was my little brother. It’s a strange feeling, I took him under my wing,” Piscitelli said. “He wouldn’t speak. Every once in a while, he’d say a few words. But he seemed out of place.”

Bullock had plans to become a firefighter or police officer once he returned stateside. In letters home, he said he missed his family and reported that he did not have any holes in him yet.

The hardened soldiers — who sometimes spent up to 30 days out on patrols — were immediately wary of the boy, though.

“It’s hard to describe, but they had the instinct of a combat veteran, and they picked up on something in Dan,” Piscitelli explained. “They’re superstitious about a lot of things, but with Dan, they were dead on. There was no superstition. He was younger, and he didn’t belong. And his actions, hiding, he wanted to keep his secret. So he was acting strange.”

By the summer of 1969, the Vietnam War was a lost cause, and had been for some time, in the minds of many, including some senior Pentagon staff members, State Department officials, the Washington intelligentsia and the foreign press corps — not to mention the former secretary of defense and chief architect of the war, Robert McNamara.

The day after Bullock died, President Richard M. Nixon announced, at a meeting on Midway Island with the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, that the United States would begin the first deliberate troop drawdowns of the war. These reductions would be coupled with “Vietnamization,” the process of handing over the fighting to the South Vietnamese army. And while the war would churn on for years — killing roughly 14,000 more Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese — this felt like the beginning of the end. It wasn’t exactly “Declare victory and get out,” as Sen. George Aiken had famously suggested the United States do back in 1966, but it was the start of Nixon’s “peace with honor” initiative.

“The great tragedy of that period, which began in 1969, was that nobody in positions of command and power really thought the war could be won,” said Max Hastings, the author of “Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975.” “The number of people Nixon and Kissinger were willing to preside over dying while trying to make this look not as bad was extremely cynical.”

As for Vietnamization, Hastings said, it was really just “Vietnamizing the corpses.”

None of that geopolitical theater especially mattered when the satchel charge came through the firing slot of Dan Bullock’s bunker, though.

Earlier that day, while daylight was still with him, Bullock had taken a flatbed transport vehicle, known as a mule, to get a load of ammunition for himself and the other soldiers who had “set lines” for the night.

Shortly after midnight, North Vietnamese “sappers” — what the Americans called the elite stealth troops — crept through the barbed wire around the bunker encampment.

“Everyone was alert,” Piscitelli said, “but that doesn’t mean much because the enemy sappers were excellent. They were so quiet. They must have crawled under the wire and tossed the thing, and that was the signal for the attack. They blew up another bunker and hit another bunker with an RPG” — a rocket-propelled grenade.

Rairden added, “We heard they were in the lines, and after the bunker blew up, it went big.”

After the initial explosions, waves of North Vietnamese came at the Marines, in combat that got so close as to be hand to hand. By dawn, five Marines had been killed, but the attack had been repelled.

Despite the platoon’s intuitions about Bullock being somehow apart from their ranks, none of the soldiers knew the truth until a few days later. A Time magazine reporter named Wallace Terry made his way to the air base and started asking questions about the boy, and told the platoon members his age.

“That’s the first we heard of it,” Piscitelli said. “I should’ve known he was 15, I should’ve guessed it.”

According to the Department of Defense at the time, Bullock was possibly the youngest soldier killed in combat since World War I, and has almost certainly remained so.

“The war was a comedy of horror. It was just as surreal as any Joseph Heller book,” said Piscitelli, who was eventually sent home from Vietnam after being wounded three separate times. “Decisions were placed in the hands of teenagers. It was a teenager war. At this whole battle of Delta sector, there was not one officer there.”

As for what may have drawn Bullock to the Marines in the first place, Christian Appy, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the author of “American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity,” said that for many African-Americans, the military was a particular kind of prospect.

“There were people who would say — older uncles and fathers who would say — ‘Listen, in our society, yeah, the military might be authoritarian and hierarchical, but it’s more of a meritocracy, there’s more opportunity for people like us than practically any other area of American society,’” Appy said. “‘If you do your job, you’re going to get a steady paycheck, you might get promoted. You might learn some skills.’”

But as the Vietnam War went on, that promise faded.

Appy added: “More and more African-Americans, including guys in the military, were saying, ‘You know, we achieved the right to be cannon fodder in a war that seems increasingly senseless and even unjust — and a blatant reminder that while we’re being sent 10,000 miles away in the name of democracy, we’re being denied those democratic rights still in the United States.’ A contradiction that King and every civil rights leader was drawing attention to.”

It’s a contradiction deepened by Dan Bullock’s age, and the fact that he should have been in high school, not in a bunker in Quang Nam province.

As Bullock’s father told a Times reporter in 1969, “My son had no business in that damn war.”

In 2003, a portion of Lee Avenue in Brooklyn, near where Dan lived, was renamed for him, and a highway marker commemorating his service was installed in Goldsboro in 2017.

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