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Pulaski’s Foremost Hero

Originally printed February 6, 1978

 

On a cold sleety afternoon in January, I made a pilgrimage through the foot-deep snow to a far corner of Oakwood Cemetery, to satisfy an intense curiosity to learn what happens to the grave of a hero with the passing of time. I felt that in order to do justice to this week’s subject I would have to make that visit. With the help of a map I was able to locate the gray leaning tombstone. In the fast-approaching twilight, I found it impossible to read the engraving on the timeworn stone, except for the name, W. Henry Pulliam. After a short time of silence there in the sleeping village I made my way back to the Scout, vowing to make other visits to the grave of this forgotten hero.

I doubt if many people who read this have ever heard of Henry Pulliam. Henry first saw the light of day on February 6, 1882 in the modest home of his family on Maple Street, in the Town of Pulaski. His parents were George and Mollie Pulliam, the father being the village blacksmith. His parents nourished him and watched him grow six feet tall, handsome and fearless. During these tranquil times, how could they have even imagined that their son would be a seafaring man, and before the end of his first enlistment in the U.S. Navy, be called upon to sacrifice his young life in the cause of his country. It is doubtful if they ever wished anything for their son except that he bring honor to them, and his town and country by following an honest line of work, and serving his fellow men with ambition.

In his late twenties, Henry, after trying his hand at several trades in the fast-growing little town, and a tour of the lure of the western states, realized that he was possessed with a roving disposition. In 1911 he enlisted in the United States Navy, and after boot training he was assigned to duty on the U.S.S. Utah. From the rank of Stoker, young Pulliam speedily advanced to Fireman First Class.

Trouble developed between the United States and Mexico, and the fleet was ordered to Mexican waters. On April 22, 1914, this country engaged in the occupation of Vera Cruz. Henry Pulliam was one of the “lucky twelve” first selected from his ship to go ashore. Fighting was furious, and Pulliam and a group of his comrades were ordered by their commanding officer to seek cover. Pulliam, who had already manned a gun, chose to fight on. His only retreat was to his position behind that gun. His only purpose there was to direct his deadly fire on the enemy wherever the enemy could be seen. So it was that this fine young Pulaskian stood at his post, while his comrades were forced to retreat. Standing there alone Henry Pulliam received the first burn of the enemy fire. Unaffected he continued to do battle. Then came a second wound. Again he did not cease his firing. Not until a third bullet pierced his breast, and penetrated his spinal column, did the mountain boy from Pulaski cease firing. He had dared and done the uttermost, and he fell over his gun to the ground, a bleeding hero.

Aboard the hospital ship coming home young Henry gained the reputation of being one of the “best patients ever on the ship.” He died before ever again touching American soil, and it was said of him, “He was uncomplaining and cheerful to the last.”

Henry Pulliam was given perhaps the most elaborate hero’s welcome ever witnessed in Pulaski. On Friday evening, May 15, as the town clock was striking seven, the train bearing the body of Henry Pulliam rolled into Pulaski, to be met at the station by nearly a thousand people. The only Virginian to give his life in the Battle of Vera Cruz was lifted from the railroad car upon the shoulders of Pulaski soldiers, and borne to a waiting caisson with the flag wrapped about it, and was taken to the armory on Valley Street, where it remained ender ground remained under guard until Sunday morning, when it was removed to the corridor of the County Courthouse. First Lt. E.W. Calfee was in charge of the guard which watched over the body while citizens viewed the casket.

The funeral procession extended practically from the Courthouse to the cemetery. Henry Pulliam was buried with military honors, and on his casket was a wreath of Sago palm and laurel leaves, tied with white ribbons, bearing a card on White House stationary, signed “The President.”

Henry Pulliam, American, Virginian, Pulaskian, sleeps in an honored grave in Oakwood Cemetery. On this February sixth, why not find a few minutes to go up to Oakwood to the grave of perhaps Pulaski’s most honored hero, on the ninety-sixth anniversary of his birth; and leave a flower there, or a prayer.

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