The form letter from Marine Captain Kingrey lumbers on for a good two dozen words before it gets to the condolence.
The recent death of your son, Private First Class Dan Bullock, U.S. Marine Corps, on June 7, 1969 at Hoa Combat Base, Quang Nam Province, Republic of Vietnam, is a source of great sorrow to me and all the members of Company F. Please accept our deepest sympathy in your bereavement.
As far as the Marine Corps knew, Bullock was old enough to serve in the military. Yet days after his death, The New York Times ran an article stating his actual age and declaring this North Carolina native “the youngest American serviceman killed in the Vietnam War.”
The week after Veteran’s Day, this man-boy peered out at me from a plaque in the New York City Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza. Generators muttered at this spot near Ground Zero in the Financial District, keeping the southern bump of Manhattan going. Less than half of the stores and restaurants had opened on this post-Superstorm Sandy Sunday, and half of those operated on a cash-only basis.
I wasn’t thinking about this powerful place brought down by water and wind at that moment, though, or even about the stiff military wording in the letter. I was noticing the noble look in Bullock’s wide eyes and handsome face, framed by a hat and uniform tailor made for him. Another picture I found shows this kid at another angle, his face looking thinner and younger as he glances up at the photographer beneath the brim of an oversize M1 helmet.
Counting back from Bullock’s actual age, I found he was born in 1953, the year before Oliver Brown et al vs. The Board of Education of Topeka. I needed to know more about his story.
One could see two sides of a coin for a young black man at that time. On one side, the newly-integrated schools Bullock must have attended might have shown him that he could shoot high. This could have prompted him to alter his birth certificate and enroll. Or, on the other side, the still-poor prospects for a black student relocated from the South could have convinced him he had no other choice.
I do know that according to TogetherWeServed.com and a Philadelphia Inquirer article, Bullock didn’t like his new home in Brooklyn, and saw the Marines as a step toward an education and a life beyond what he was living. According to others, he “dreamed” of donning that Marine helmet, holding a police badge, or flying planes. The former, less romantic story comes bolstered by an interview with Bullock’s sister. The latter, I suppose, shoots off from that piece of truth.
Whether the enlistment moved Bullock any closer to his dreams is hard to say. According to a fellow soldier interviewed by the Inquirer, the night he died, Bullock had been assigned cleaning duty.
A handful of articles and columns from Veteran’s Day 2012 mention this young Marine, but don’t bring me much closer to understanding his story. I don’t see them bringing up race or digging further into economic or social reasons he may have joined up. As another Marine friend told the Inquirer, he “took his secret to the grave.”