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Tom Bullock earns the Distinguished Flying Cross

Updated: May 7


Tom Bullock

“We were on the bomb run, and we noticed that the anti-aircraft fire from the ground was very accurate,” First Lieutenant Tom Bullock, lead bombardier for the 451st Bomb Group’s second attack unit, observed. “It was almost impossible for them to be that accurate.” The Germans might have said the same thing about Bullock had they known what the twenty-two-year-old airman was about to unleash on them.


Bullock had seen war clouds gather on America’s horizon far earlier than most boys his age. In September 1939, when he was just seventeen, Bullock and his family were on the way to vacation in Monterrey, Mexico, from their home in Hillsboro, Texas. “We were crossing the International Bridge at Laredo when the car radio in Mother’s 1935 Dodge sedan reported that Germany had invaded Poland,” he recalled. Up to that time, his earliest memories were of the Depression, and, though he had heard of Hitler, events in Europe felt remote at best. The news of the invasion changed much for the young man, shaking his faith that the United States could remain aloof from Europe’s troubles. “It made quite an impression,” he recollected.


As the great conflagration swept over Europe, Bullock focused on his studies and musical pursuits as a saxophonist. He took pre-engineering courses at Hillsboro Junior College, working on the side as a part-time delivery boy at Acme Cleaners while playing every chance he got in a small local orchestra or in his own band, the Sophisticated Swingsters. Bullock was playing in his orchestra at the Texas Theater in Hillsboro early on the afternoon of 7 December 1941, when the manager walked to the front of the theater and announced the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. “We promptly went about doing what we should do,” Bullock recalled. “We played the Star-Spangled Banner.” Afterward, he milled amongst the crowd outside the theater, and the prevailing mood was that the Americans would deal swift defeat upon the Japanese. “There was a great amount of confidence at that time, based on absolutely no substance or reality,” he remembered.


Bullock decided, at least initially, to abide by his mother’s wishes and enroll at Texas A&M, and in June 1942, he commenced his studies in civil engineering, the same path taken by his father. But the younger Bullock’s conscience tugged at him, and by the fall, as many of his friends and classmates, including two of his band mates, were enlisting in the service, Tom had decided to join the Army Air Forces (AAF). He just had to find a way to break the news to his parents. In November, Will Bond, for whom Bullock worked part time at the Bond Drug Store in Hillsboro, gave the young man a ride to Dallas, where Bullock enlisted. Tom had resolved to tell his parents after the fact, but the following month, Bullock received word that his father had had a heart attack. He rushed from College Station to the family home at 504 Craig Street and found his dad in bad shape.


Bullock knew his father wanted him to re-enroll at A&M for the semester beginning in January 1943, and the family doctor counseled Tom to do just that, fearing that to do otherwise would cause the elder Bullock stress and slow his recovery. When Tom got called up for basic training at Sheppard Field in Wichita Falls in the new year, he devised a ruse to conceal his true whereabouts. He would write letters to his father and send them to a friend at A&M, who would mail them to the elder Bullock from College Station, ensuring a post mark from the university town. The scheme passed muster, and after several weeks, Bullock’s father had made a remarkable recovery. “I got about a week’s leave from Sheppard Field,” Tom recalled, “and I went straight home and broke the news to him that I had been at Sheppard Field all of that time. He took it pretty well.”


After basic training and a short stint of study at Oklahoma Baptist University, the AAF shipped Bullock to San Antonio for initial pilot training, which he passed with flying colors. Tom began the next phase of instruction at a field in Cuero, Texas. “I had a time,” he remembered fondly of his flights in an open-cockpit biplane. “I enjoyed it very much.” One solo flight was less than enjoyable, however. Low-level clouds rolled in, covering the area below the young hotshot, who had not yet been instructed in instrument-only flight.


“All of a sudden, after flying around for about fifteen minutes,” he recollected, “there was a hole in the clouds below me, and I could see a building—it looked like a warehouse with a tin roof—and on it was printed Flatonia, Texas.” Bullock dove through the hole like a bat out of hell and emerged below the clouds, studied the road map he carried, and ascertained his position. He found a railroad and followed it straight back to Cuero and landed right on time. For years afterward, whenever Bullock drove past the building with the tin roof that may have saved his life, he said a prayer of thanks.


The next phase of training did not go as planned for the young aviation cadet. On descent from a flight out of Waco Army Airfield, Bullock passed too close to another aircraft in the area, and his instructor claimed the trainee had not seen it. The mistake triggered a test ride, which Bullock failed. He got two more chances and passed neither, and his days in the pilot’s seat were over. “I just didn’t make it,” Bullock recollected. “It was a terrible day for me.”

 

After receiving training in gunnery and navigation, Bullock was sent to bombardier school in San Angelo, Texas. He graduated with flying colors, and by the beginning of 1945, Bullock was in combat with the 451st Bomb Group’s 725th Bomb Squadron. After dropping bombs filled with sand throughout training, Bullock was ready to test his mettle with the Norden bombsight using the real thing.


On one of his early missions, the Texan was serving as togglier in the Liberator assuming the number four position in his combat box. On the way to the target, the first three B-24s in the formation dropped out due to mechanical problems, and Bullock found himself unceremoniously thrust into the role of lead bombardier. His moment of truth finally at hand, the airman pulled the canvas cover off the bombsight and found himself looking at a Sperry, the less advanced predecessor to the Norden. Bullock had received classroom training on the device but had never actually operated one before. “The only thing I could do was try to make the best of it and try to remember my ground school instruction,” he recollected.


Bullock set to his task, but the run in to the target, a bridge in northern Italy, just didn’t feel right, and the young lieutenant directed the squadron around for a second pass. This time he let fly with the bombs. The results were more than a little disappointing. “The bombs missed the target, must have been by three or four miles,” Bullock recalled.


That wasn’t the worst of it. After the Liberator got back to base, the group commander called Bullock to the carpet for the mission’s failure. During an upbraiding in the colonel’s office, as Bullock silently pondered if his aspirations to become one of his squadron’s lead bombardiers were dashed, an intelligence officer brought in aerial photographs of the target area. None of the pictures had turned out. With no photographic evidence to illustrate the scale of his outfit’s shortcomings, the group commander’s demeanor instantly changed. “He looked at me, and he says, ‘No problem. The pictures turned out bad,’” Bullock later recalled with a chuckle. “That’s the way it was. I was saved by a bad set of film.”


Out ahead of his squadron on the Linz mission of 25 April 1945, Bullock saw Edward Stresky’s Liberator get hit and go down, but he had no time to dwell on the fate of those on board, including his friend, navigator James Gore. Bullock returned his focus to the Norden bombsight and got back to work. And he had his work cut out for him.


The target, the Main Station Sidings, was covered in heavy smoke when Bullock first looked through the sight at the beginning of the bomb run. Peering through the eyepiece, the bombardier found a break in the haze and was able to spot landmarks he recognized from aerial photos. Using these fixed points to estimate the position of the target, a technique known as offset bombing, Bullock deftly worked the Norden to set up the bomb run. As lead bombardier, he knew the other aircraft in his squadron would drop their bombs when they saw his fall from the bomb bay. The pressure was on.


Flak pummeled the formation, but Bullock’s aim was true. Late in the bomb run, the smoke blanketing the target wafted away, and the bombardier found his earlier observations had been accurate. He made a few last-minute corrections, and in short order Bullock felt the Liberator rise as the Norden released the heavy bomb load. He later recalled, “I was rather lucky, but the bombsight was a good one, and we had complete success.” Bullock’s bombs, and those of his squadron mates, clobbered the Main Station Sidings.

 

After VE Day, the men of the 451st Bomb Group were so eager to leave Italy that Bullock and his crew felt the need to post guards on the Liberator they were designated to fly home so another crew wouldn’t make off with it. When Bullock and his fellow airmen finally got underway, they never looked back. The night before the trans-Atlantic leg of their journey from Dakar to Natal, the bombardier and his mates went out for a night of fun with another crew with whom Bullock had flown some missions. The next morning, an hour into the crossing, Bullock’s radioman received a transmission that the other crew’s B-24, which had taken off right behind them, had crashed into the sea. “They were all gone,” the Texan recalled. “All fatalities. It was a sad story.”


Upon landing in Savannah, Georgia, Bullock’s pilot followed an Army jeep to an aircraft apron and shut down the engines. The jeep’s NCO occupants greeted the crew and promised the airmen all the fresh milk—a delicacy not found at the AAF’s bases in Italy—that they could drink. First, though, the sergeants insisted that they had to take possession of the men’s watches and any other accountable property they carried. “We were so happy to be home and would have given them the shirt off our back if they’d asked for it,” Bullock remembered. The crew handed over their watches and a few other Army-issued items, only to learn later that the NCOs were taking the watches and selling them. “So that’s why I didn’t bring a watch home,” Bullock recalled.


After a few days in Savannah, the crew split up, and Bullock was put in charge of a group of soldiers taking a troop train to New Orleans. There, he ran into his friend, James Gore, navigator on the doomed Liberator flown by Edward Stresky over Linz on 25 April. “I thought he’d been killed,” Bullock recalled. “The whole plane blew up right off the side of where I was in the formation.”


Bullock looked at Gore as if he’d seen a ghost. “What in the world are you doing here? You’re supposed to be dead!” he exclaimed. Gore explained that he’d bailed out and been captured by the Germans, who quickly turned him over to advancing American forces. The downed navigator was put on a flight to the States and made it home before almost everyone else in his outfit.

 

Seven months later, Bullock, now a civilian, was sitting in a barber’s chair in his native Hillsboro, Texas, when his father walked in carrying a package that had arrived from the AAF.  Not knowing what it could be, Bullock opened the box on the spot and found himself staring at a Distinguished Flying Cross.  The award, the citation read, was in recognition of his actions on 25 April.

 

Tom Bullock married Jane Blanchard in 1947, and they had a son and daughter together. With the help of the GI Bill, he returned to Texas A&M and received a degree in architecture in 1949. Bullock worked his entire professional career for the firm Caudill, Rowlett, and Scott and shaped it into one of the largest architectural design firms in the United States. Bullock was named an Outstanding Alumnus of the Texas A&M College of Architecture, and in 1991 the university created the Thomas A. Bullock Endowed Chair in Leadership and Innovation at the College of Architecture in his honor. Late in life, he reflected: “The war was not all bad. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me, perhaps the best. It’s been a great life. The war was not a waste.” Tom Bullock passed away in 2007 after a short illness. He was 84 years old.


Sources:

- Tom Bullock’s oral history, recorded for the Bullock family on 20 August 1994, used with permission. - Four Hundred Fifty-First Bomb Group, Bombing Narrative, 25 April 1945, National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 18, Box 2503.


Photo used with permission of the Bullock family

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