Believing he was 19 years old, they gave him the green light. Bullock successfully enlisted with the U.S. Marine Corps.
The youngest American serviceman KIA in the Vietnam War was just 15 years old. As sad as it is, history is heavy with stories of minors venturing into battlefields. From the American Revolutionary War to post-World War II conflicts, stories like this are not that hard to find.
Spanning for some 19 years, the Vietnam War was a long, contentious aspect of America’s history, characterized by several episodes of tragedy abroad and intense media and political outrage at home.
In the midst of all that, our attention is drawn to the story of Private First Class Dan Bullock, a young teenager who ventured onto the hostile soil of Vietnam as a US Marine, ultimately sacrificing his life as he served his country, having lived 15 years, 5 months, and 17 days.
Bullock was born in Goldsboro, North Carolina on December 21st, 1953. Following his mother’s demise, 12-year-old Dan and his sister left for Brooklyn, New York in order to stay with his father and stepmother.
His dream was to be an Air Force pilot, a police officer, or a U.S. Marine.
By September 18th, 1968, America was already neck-deep in the Vietnam War, and enlistment of citizens into the military was in full swing. Fourteen years old at the time, with a height of 5 foot 9 inches and a weight of 160 pounds, Bullock decided to join the military.
The minimum age for enlistment was 17 years old, and even at that age, one would need parental consent to be enlisted. But Bullock was completely undeterred by this restriction.
He managed to doctor his birth certificate, showing his birth date as December 21st, 1949.
The recruitment staff at Albee Square Marine recruiting station was none the wiser. Believing he was 19 years old, they gave him the green light. Bullock successfully enlisted with the U.S. Marine Corps and was assigned with Platoon 3039 in Parris Island.
After struggling through months of training at the boot camp, Bullock managed to graduate with the help of Franklin McArthur, a fellow recruit who befriended him.
“He had already kind of washed out when he got to my platoon,” McArthur stated in an interview with New York Daily News. “He had trouble keeping up.”
According to McArthur, he had decided to help the 14-year-old through the rigorous boot camp training because he understood what put a rifle in the boy’s hands: the desire to help his family. Bullock’s father earned a living as a lumber worker and a sharecropper, and Bullock wanted to help, but he had no skills to land a job in New York.
However, McArthur’s decision to assist the boy would become a choice that would later haunt him.
Bullock arrived in South Vietnam, over 8,500 miles away from home, on May 18th, 1969. One can only imagine what was running through his mind as he stepped into the atmosphere of South Vietnam where the sound of war seemed to have become constant.
Now aged 15 and a private first class, he was assigned to 2nd Squad, 2nd Platoon, Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division, where he served as a rifleman.
Bullock was stationed at An Hoa Combat Base, a few kilometers west of Hội An, in Quảng Nam Province. At 1:00 AM on June 7th, 1969, the base came under attack by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).
Hostilities grew through the night and casualties rose on both sides. Bullock played his own role in the fight, trying as much as he could to help keep the base from falling into the hands of the NVA.
However, as the attack pressed on, it would soon be clear that the Marines were outgunned. Bullock promptly began making runs to deliver extra ammunition to his beleaguered comrades who were desperately trying to hold off the assault.
Sadly, while Bullock was on his second supply run, he was hit by several rounds from small firearms and perished instantly.
It wasn’t until reporters paid a visit to Bullock’s family that America came to know that Bullock was only 15 years old. Such a young man’s decision to go to war is, indeed, not something everyone would be able to understand.
According to his sister Gloria, “[Dan] wanted to get an education, to make something of himself, and saw the Marines as a way to get there.” He had plans to continue his education upon returning from Vietnam.
If Bullock’s decision was influenced by something else, something much deeper than we thought, that is something we now will never know.
In honor of his bravery, in June 2003 the New York City Council renamed a section of Lee Avenue in Brooklyn, where Bullock had lived since he was 11 years old, in his honor.
On the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., his name is found among those of the 58,266 servicemen who made the ultimate sacrifice. Bullock is not the only one who was underage—at least five were 16 years old, and at least 12 were 17 years old.
After his interment, Bullock’s gravesite remained without a headstone for 31 years. A headstone was donated in 2000 by talk-show host Sally Jessy Raphael.
In reminiscing about his days at boot camp with Bullock, McArthur stated in an interview that a Marine who knew how he had helped Bullock get through boot camp had asked him a gut-wrenching question: “Did you ever think that if you didn’t help him, he might have lived?”