Saturday, December 20, 2014

At war on Christmas

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 12/20/2013

A Christmas card from home made one holiday special for a lonely serviceman from Ottawa during World War II.

Neil Bullock, a tech sergeant in the U.S. Army 8th Air Corps during the war, shipped out for England shortly after he and his wife, Mary, were wed Feb. 26, 1943, he said.

A Christmas card from home made one holiday special for a lonely serviceman from Ottawa during World War II.

Neil Bullock, a tech sergeant in the U.S. Army 8th Air Corps during the war, shipped out for England shortly after he and his wife, Mary, were wed Feb. 26, 1943, he said.

The Ottawa native will mark his 98th birthday Sunday with his daughter, Nancy Bennett, a retired English teacher. The pair share a home in Ottawa. Though his wife passed away about three years ago, Bullock said, he has many fond memories of their time together, including a trip they made to Europe 50 years after he was stationed in England.

Letters from home, especially from his new bride, were what Bullock looked forward to the most while stationed overseas, he said.

“I couldn’t hear her voice because we couldn’t call on the telephone, so we all lived for the letters from home,” Bullock said of himself and other soldiers. “I remember getting a Christmas card, and my wife put a package of noodles in an envelope that I could warm up and have a hot cup of noodle soup. It was really great.”

Bullock met Mary, a Fort Scott native, while she was attending Ottawa University, he said.

The son of a longtime Ottawa police chief, Bullock first lived on the north side of Ottawa but the family moved to the south side because his father, who went by the nickname “Tom,” was worried about the kids crossing the tracks with all the heavy train traffic in those days, he said.

“My dad was police chief, so I had to behave,” Bullock said, chuckling. “He was a very nice man.”

Bullock was drafted in 1942, he said, as the U.S. entered the war after Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese Dec. 7, 1941.

“I still have the papers where [Uncle Sam] invited me to join the Army,” Bullock said, laughing.

After spending the first 1 1/2 years of his Army Air Corps stint in the state of Washington, Bullock returned home to get married and then shipped out to England, where he was stationed on a U.S. air base north of London, he said.

“The British people were very friendly, and I didn’t have any trouble,” Bullock said. “They knew we were there to help them.”

Bullock was a dental assistant on the base and served under a captain who was a dentist, he said.

“We mostly just stayed on the base and worked on American military personnel’s teeth,” Bullock said. “There were a lot of guys stationed there, so it kept us busy all the time. We did all kinds [of dental work] — whatever needed to be fixed.”

Bullock had the opportunity to travel to London and different areas of England while he was stationed in Great Britain for two years, seeing famous structures like St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London, he said.

He also saw the ugly side of the war, he said.

“When we would go to London, we saw miles of damage where there was nothing but debris from all the bombing,” Bullock said. “Manchester was quite a ways east of us, but we could still hear the bombs hitting that city.”

While Germany’s air force had been depleted by the mid-1940s, Bullock said the Germans continued to fire rockets at England.

“They would fire what we called buzz bombs,” Bullock said. “They sounded like a Model T flying through the sky. When you heard the engine conk out, that’s when you took cover because you knew it was coming straight down.”

Bombers taking off from the U.S. air base sometimes would come back all shot up after returning from raids over Germany, Bullock said.

“They either were repaired or junked, if they couldn’t be fixed,” he said.

American Big Band leader Glenn Miller, whose group recorded such hits as “Moonlight Serenade,” “In the Mood,” “Tuxedo Junction” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” entertained the troops at the air base in early December 1944, Bullock said.

“Glenn Miller and his band played in one of the hangars on the base,” Bullock said. “I don’t know how many guys we had in that hangar, but they were everywhere — some were even hanging from the roof. Boy, that band sure was something. That was about two weeks before Glenn Miller disappeared, and no one ever knew what happened to him.”

Miller’s plane disappeared Dec. 15, 1944, while crossing the English Channel en route to France, according to military accounts. The plane, and Miller’s body, were never recovered.

After being stationed in England for about two years, Bullock said he received orders that the 8th Air Corps would be shipping out for Japan.

“Japan was giving us trouble, so we were all packed and ready to go,” Bullock said. “But Harry Truman was president then, and he dropped a couple of H-bombs on Japan, and the war ended real quick after that.”

Bullock remembers being on a ship in the Atlantic Ocean and waking up one morning when the sea was smooth as glass.

“Everyone was laughing and singing songs — we had a wonderful time,” he said.

Soldiers on board the ship had much to be thankful for — they were returning home, Bullock said.

Bullock sold insurance through his Farmers Insurance agency in Ottawa for 30 years, before retiring in 1986. He and Mary moved to Estes Park, Colo., for six years, from 1992 to 1998, before deciding to move back to Ottawa. Their daughter, Nancy Bennett, earned a bachelor’s degree from Ottawa University and taught junior high English in Valley Center, near Wichita, for 13 years before earning a master’s degree from Baker University and coming back to teach English at Ottawa University and Neosho County Community College.

While teaching junior high English, one of Bennett’s students saw a photograph of her father in front of Charles Dickens’ workshop while stationed in England. The novelist created such memorable classics as “Oliver Twist” and “A Christmas Carol.”

“The boy saw the photograph and asked if I was Dickens,” Bullock said, sharing a laugh with his daughter Friday.

After the war ended in September 1945, Bullock didn’t return home in time for Christmas, he said, but he did arrive back in Ottawa on Feb. 26 — the day of his anniversary.

“That was a nice anniversary present,” he said.

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