News: Virginia Guard chaplain killed in World War I receives state's highest medal
EMPORIA, Va. -- Brig. Gen. Wayne A. Wright, Virginia Air National Guard Chief of Staff, presented the Virginia Distinguished Service Medal to the family of chaplain and 1st Lt. Thomas McNeill Bulla 93 years after he died from combat wounds in World War I in a ceremony, Oct. 17, at the First Presbyterian Church in Emporia, Va.
Ten members of the Virginia National Guard Military Funeral Honors Team are scheduled to perform honors by providing a rifle volley, the playing of “Taps” and the folding and presentation of a United States flag to family members.
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. He was evacuated to an Army hospital and died of 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 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.
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, and soldiers from the Portsmouth-based 2nd Squadron, 183rd Cavalry Regiment provided the gun salute.
"He lived the warrior ethos that we teach all of our Soldiers to never leave a fallen comrade," Batts said at the dedication ceremony. "He paid for it with his life."
Bulla was born near Fayetteville, North Carolina, Jan. 4, 1881. Soon after he graduated from Union Theological Seminary he moved to Emporia, Virginia, where 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.
As the 116th continued to train at McClellan, Bulla attended an Army chaplains school held at Fort Monroe, Virginia. 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 Oct. 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 Oct. 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, Oct. 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.
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, July 23, 1931. General Waller, acting on the Board’s recommendation, authorized the use of the award, 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.