Don Bullard headed for the mess hall after long hours spent digging wrecked tanks out of the muck and mud of a shell-blasted battlefield in North Africa, bone-tired and covered in mud.

The 23-year-old tank driver and vehicle recovery specialist had volunteered to serve with the British Army in its seesaw battle with the Italians and Germans, which thundered back and forth across North Africa. By then Germany had conquered almost all of Europe and the United States had finally entered the global conflict on the side of Great Britain — thanks to the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. In North Africa, the Allies hoped finally to turn the tide against the seemingly invincible Germans.

As Bullard shuffled into the mess tent — all 5 feet 6 inches of him — he found himself confronted with a remarkable sight. There sat General George S. Patton, the slashing general determined to shatter the legend of German General Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox.

Patton looked the part of a movie star general, impeccable uniform, gleaming leather riding boots — a picture of military glory.

“What you been doing, soldier?” asked the commanding general.

Bullard gave him a long look — not quite rolling his eyes.

“Getting this uniform dirty ... Sir,” replied the irrepressible truck driver turned solider, a card-carrying member of “The Greatest Generation.”

Now, Don Bullard’s 103 years old. The memories have grown dim after a life of duty, honor and relentless hard work. But the memory of time green kids like Bullard saved the world came flooding back recently. Marine Corps veteran Joseph Juharos assembled the veterans of Overgaard American Legion Post 86 to visit Bullard in his home to award him a plaque honoring his service, forgotten long ago by the headlong world. Hospice Compassus supports the effort, often inviting the honor guard to visit residents in its facility. Local veterans also attended, including Payson Councilor Chris Higgins.

Gary Korosec (Navy), Bud Collette (Army), Alan Yost (Navy) and Dale Strecker (Army) gathered around Bullard, who rested comfortably in his favorite armchair as Bullard’s daughter, Kathy, and two caregivers looked on. The honor guard sang patriotic songs, joked with the veteran of battles across North Africa and then across France into the heart of Germany.

Bullard looked alternately baffled and happy.

“I’m overwhelmed,” he said more than once.

His family said he never talked much about his role in the conquest of North Africa, France and Germany. He was humble and tough and a worker, who never put on airs. He fought the war, raised his family, worked all his life — and at 82 dug out his basement with a shovel so he could build a workshop.

Back in 1940, Bullard had a job driving a truck in St. Paul when he was drafted.

“I went because I had to,” said Bullard. “They asked me to. I was not doing much here,” he added.

About the time he finished his basic training, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

“I knew I was in for the duration then,” he recalls matter-of-factly.

He said he volunteered to be sent to a British tank unit in North Africa.

“He said he got tired of marching,” said Carol Watts, his caregiver.

He joined a furious battle with momentous consequences, as the British, the Italians and finally the Americans learned the harsh lessons of German-style total war. Bullard was in a group of 200 enlisted men and eight officers who joined the British 8th Army under General Montgomery. He was a tank driver, assigned a leftover design with little chance against the advanced German Panzers.

The Italians had thrown their lot in with Germany, hoping to expand their empire in Africa. The British fought stubbornly back from their own colonial domains anchored by Egypt. The Italians nearly forced the British from the continent before the counterattacks sent the Italians reeling — with advances and retreats covering hundreds of miles of harsh desert. The Germans sent in Rommel with several divisions, who checked the British advance and pushed them back once more to Egypt.

Bullard joined the battle as the British rallied to turn the tables on Rommel, with the help of the arriving Americans.

“We saw very little action,” Bullard wrote in a droll and low-key summary of his war experience for his family. “We were at the east end of the fighting and Germany’s supply lines were very long.”

The battle for North Africa lasted from 1940 to May of 1943 and cost the Allies 220,000 casualties, including some 35,000 killed. The U.S. suffered 2,715 killed, 6,500 missing and 9,000 wounded. The Germans and Italians had 22,000 killed and 350,000 captured, according to Wikipedia. Military historians have argued about the wisdom of the campaign, which proved a sideshow to the invasion of Europe. However, the campaign forced Germany to divert troops and aircraft from the invasion of Russia, which might have ensured Russia’s survival and determined the outcome of the war.

After a month in the field, Bullard returned to the States and rejoined the Third Army, training for tank warfare in the vast California deserts.

Bullard decided to seek a commission as an officer. He also married his sweetheart. He and his wife Gwen were to remain happily married for 60 years, but they started out in fear and uncertainty. She followed him to Texas where he underwent officer training and then on to England and Ireland before the Normandy invasion.

Bullard led by example and understood his men. They called him “junior” on account of his height. His superior officers frowned and told him that was disrespectful. Bullard just shrugged. “It may be disrespectful,” he said, “but they’ll do anything I ask.”

He found himself back in Patton’s Army after D-Day, determined to sprint across France and conquer Germany.

His unit landed in France a month after Normandy. “We were a heavy maintenance company and did all the maintenance the company, battalion, regimental, divisional and Army maintenance could not handle. We were assigned to the 3rd Army, George Patton’s old blood and guts Army,” he wrote in the account for his family.

A masterpiece of understatement, his account says — “we crossed France, Belgium and parts of Germany before the war ended.”

Actually, he participated in one of the greatest campaigns of maneuver in history.

America’s Sherman tanks led the breakneck advance across occupied France, liberating Paris in August 1944 before regrouping for the assault on Germany. Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower opted for an advance on a broad, unified front — rejecting pleas for the tank commanders to spearhead a rapid drive into Germany. The Allied supply operations strained to keep up with the advance.

The assault on Germany involved 4.5 million Allied troops opposed by 1.5 million Germans. The Americans alone suffered 50,000 killed, 172,000 wounded and 23,000 captured or missing in furious fighting that stretched from August 1944 to March of 1945.

Patton proved the master of tank warfare. He used small planes to make daring reconnaissance of enemy lines, then sent in columns of Shermans to make breakthroughs, bagging hundreds of thousands of prisoners and repeatedly forcing the stubborn defenders to fall back. Bullard’s unit worked feverishly to keep thousands of American tanks in the battle.

Just as Patton was poised to push on into Germany, his tanks ran out of gas. Patton complained that with 400,000 gallons of gas, he could have been in Germany in two days.

Instead the advance ground to a halt. This gave the Germans the chance to mount a desperate, last-ditch counterattack in the dead of winter, the infamous Battle of the Bulge.

Patton pulled his Third Army out of battle lines and moved three full divisions to relieve the U.S. 101st Airborne Division, whose seeming suicidal resistance in Bastogne had stalled the German advance. In a maneuver even Eisenhower deemed impossible, Patton, within a few days, moved 133,000 Third Army vehicles with 130,000 tons of supplies to the relief of Bastogne.

The victory in the Battle of the Bulge cleared the way for the final assault into Germany. Patton’s 300,000-man Third Army captured 32,000 square miles of German territory, suffering 2,102 killed, 8,000 wounded and 1,600 missing. They killed 20,000 Germans and wounded another 48,000 while taking 653,000 prisoners. Between Normandy and the end of the war, the Third Army was in combat for 281 days, crossed 24 major rivers, captured 81,000 square miles of territory with 12,000 cities and towns. The Third Army captured or killed 1.8 million Germans — six times its own strength.

Or as Bullard put it: “we crossed France, Belgium and parts of Germany before the war ended.”

He also noted, “Patton was a good officer — but he was not for the men, he was for winning the war.”

Relieved to have survived, Bullard returned to his beloved wife. He went back to work at the same trucking company and learned to make molds for truck parts. His skill with molds led him into the fledgling plastics industry, which remade the world. He started his own company and worked hard all his life. He and his wife of 60 years raised three children. He outlived one of them, a deep grief.

His wife’s sister bought a place in Sun City. Every time Bullard drove through Payson to visit his sister, he declared, “I’d like to retire here.”

So at the age of 82, he sold all his tools and moved to Payson. He got to know all the neighbors. He found his “best friend ever,” his neighbor on the block.

But retirement didn’t really take. He soon found himself building things for his neighbors. With a shovel and a wheelbarrow, he dug out a basement under the porch, where he could build a workshop. He bought new tools. He built a spiral staircase on a dare, said his daughter.

“He was just always busy,” said Carol. “I think that’s why he lasted so long.”

So that’s why the aging members of the Overgaard Honor Guard made the drive down to Payson, to offer Don Bullard a well-earned salute.

They sang and chatted and made a ceremony out of handing Bullard his certificate for saving the world all those years ago.

“No one told me you were coming. I had no idea,” he said.

His daughter sighed. She had told him.

But it’s hard to remember 103 years worth of stuff — even if it includes saving the world.

“I’m overwhelmed,” he repeated.

Everyone exchanged glances, tempted by tears.

But then the young man with the dirty uniform answering a general’s dumb question glimmered in Bullard’s elfin smile.

“I’ll find out who’s behind this,” he added, his eyes twinkling.

The roomful of veterans laughed, perhaps remembering their own years of comradeship and danger.

Bullard loved the laugh.

So he said it again. “I’ll find out who’s behind this.”

And everyone laughed again, proud of the small, humble man who saved the world and won the peace.

Because sometimes, the laughter of comrades is even better than a salute.

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