Oct. 20, 2011

Commonwealth of Virginia posthumously awards WWI hero

By Staff Sgt. Andrew H. Owen and Cotton Puryear 
Virginia Guard Public Affairs

EMPORIA, Va. — The Virginia National Guard presented the Virginia Distinguished Service Medal to the family of Chaplain (1st Lt.) Thomas McNeill Bulla in a ceremony Oct. 17 at the First Presbyterian Church in Emporia 93 years after he died from combat wounds in World War I. Brig. Gen. Wayne A. Wright, Air Guard Chief of Staff, presented the award to the Bulla family outside the church and 10 members of the Virginia National Guard Military Funeral Honors Team performed honors by providing a rifle volley, the playing of “Taps” and the folding and presentation of a United States flag to family members.

 

Brig. Gen. Wayne A. Wright, Virginia Air National Guard Chief of Staff, presents the Virginia Distinguished Service Medal to the family of Chaplain (1st Lt.) Thomas McNeill Bulla in a ceremony Oct. 17 at the First Presbyterian Church in Emporia 93 years after he died from combat wounds in World War I . (Photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew H. Owen, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

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“Today we are honoring and paying a long overdue tribute to a great American,” said Wright. “I want to thank the Bulla family for allowing us in their lives and hearts to make this award and day happen. It is indeed an honor to stand before you today and be a part of a very special event.”

Bulla served in 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France and was helping wounded Soldiers when he was struck by enemy fire Oct. 15, 1918. After evacuation to an Army hospital Bulla died of his wounds Oct. 17. Bulla never received any recognition by the Army for his sacrifice to save others, and he will be the 61st recipient of the VDSM.

The commonwealth can bestow no higher honor on a Soldier than the VDSM. It is exclusively intended for the recognition of the highest standards of dedicated service to the Virginia National Guard or to those in command of members of the Virginia National Guard in war and is rarely presented.

“The VDSM is the highest decoration the commonwealth of Virginia can award and is rarely presented. The sole authorizing agent for this award is the adjutant general of Virginia," Wright said. “So, the privilege of presenting this to a ‘native son’ makes it all the more special.”

 

The VDSM is the highest decoration the Commonwealth of Virginia can award. It is exclusively intended for the recognition of the highest standards of dedicated service to the Virginia National Guard or to those in command of members of the Virginia National Guard in war and is rarely presented. The sole authorizing agent for this award is the Adjutant General of Virginia. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew H. Owen, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

Click HERE to see more photos on Flickr.

The last chapel currently in use at the Virginia Army National Guard Maneuver Training Center at Fort Pickett was dedicated May 24, 2011 to Bulla. Maj. Gen. Frank E. Batts, Sr., commander of the 29th Infantry Division, and Col. Tom Wilkinson, commander of Fort Pickett, unveiled the new sign outside the chapel as part of the dedication. Several of Bulla's relatives also attended the event.

“It has been quite a labor of love to get us here to where we are today,” said Wilkinson. “Back in May, we actually dedicated the chapel at Fort Pickett to Chaplain Bulla, and many of you were there at that ceremony. This is the culmination of that event where we are now presenting Chaplain Bulla with the award he so well deserved.”

Bulla was born near Fayetteville, N.C., on Jan. 4, 1881. Soon after he graduated from Union Theological Seminary, he moved to Emporia, Va., where he became the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in 1911. He was never married.

Congress declared war against Germany and Austria on April 6, 1917, bringing the United States into World War I. Following a request by the colonel of the 4th Virginia Infantry, an element of the Virginia National Guard, to become its chaplain, Bulla volunteered and was appointed in the rank of first lieutenant. By late summer the 4th had been transferred to Camp McClellan, Ala. There it was combined with Virginia’s other two infantry regiments, the 1st and 2nd, to create the 116th Infantry, an element of the newly organized 29th “Blue and Gray” Division. This much larger regiment, numbering more than 3,000 Soldiers, required three chaplains so Lieutenant Bulla was assigned to the 3rd Battalion.

 

The Virginia Army National Guard Funeral Honors Team provides a rifle volley in honor of Chaplain (1st Lt.) Thomas McNeill Bulla. The team also honored Bulla by playing "Taps" and by folding and preenting the American flag to his family. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew H. Owen, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

Click HERE to see more photos on Flickr.

As the 116th continued to train at McClellan, Bulla attended an Army chaplains school held at Fort Monroe, Va.. While returning to his unit he briefly stopped back in Emporia to visit his church. There he performed a baptism, probably his last official act for his parish. He soon returned to his regiment.

The entire 29th Division sailed to France in June 1918. It first entered combat in the Alsace Sector in August but suffered relatively light casualties. That changed when, starting on October 8, the division took part in the massive Allied operation known as the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. It was apparently during the opening days of this attack that Chaplain Bulla repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire by moving across “no man’s land” helping wounded soldiers to safety. This was duty neither required nor expected of an Army chaplain.

On the morning of October 15, the 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry was the lead element for yet another attack in the area known as the Molleville Farm. It was during this assault that Bulla, again helping wounded soldiers, was struck by enemy fire and mortally wounded. He was evacuated to an Army hospital at Petite Mejoy where he died of his wounds on October 17.

 

In the years since his death Bulla was been honored in several venues: by his church with a stained glass window dedicated in his name; American Legion Post 46 in Emporia adopted the name “Bulla Post” in 1924; he is cited among the 23 Army chaplains who died during World War I on a monument at Arlington National Cemetery; and in 1999 the Commonwealth of Virginia erected a roadside historical marker on the grounds of his church in Emporia. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew H. Owen, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

Click HERE to see more photos on Flickr.

In the years since his death Bulla was been honored in several venues: by his church with a stained glass window dedicated in his name; American Legion Post 46 in Emporia adopted the name “Bulla Post” in 1924; he is cited among the 23 Army chaplains who died during World War I on a monument at Arlington National Cemetery; and in 1999 the Commonwealth of Virginia erected a roadside historical marker on the grounds of his church in Emporia.

The VDSM was designed and its criteria established by a special Awards Board impaneled by Brig. Gen. Samuel G. Waller, the Adjutant General of Virginia, under Special Order 151 on July 23, 1931. General Waller, acting on the Board’s recommendation, authorized the use of the award on Nov. 2, 1931.

The first 13 presentations were made in 1932 and included the then current and six former governors of Virginia; one recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second highest award for valor, in World War I; Marshall of France Henri Petain; General of the Army John J. Pershing and two other non-Virginia general officers who commanded large numbers of Virginia soldiers in World War I. Aside from most of Virginia’s subsequent retiring governors and Adjutant Generals’ who have receive the award, it has also been presented to other dignitaries including Army Chief of Staff and later Secretary of State General George C. Marshall; General Charles Gerhardt who commanded the 29th Infantry Division during all of its combat in World War II and General William Sands, the only Virginia Guard general to see combat with the 29th during the war and who commanded the post war reorganized division.

Over the last six decades, other notables who have received the VDSM include Secretary of the Army John O. Marsh, who served as an officer in the Virginia Guard, and General John G. Castles, the Adjutant General of Virginia from 1982 to 1994. Castles has the distinction of being the only person to receive the award three times during his career. As of the end of 2010 only 60 persons have been awarded the VDSM, though several of these have received multiple awards.

The medal has only rarely been awarded for combat valor. Since its creation it has been awarded to only two Medal of Honor recipients, one posthumously, four Virginia Guardsmen who earned the DSC in either World War I or II, one posthumously, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery

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