When they first got married in September of 1956, Lyle and Diana Bull were living in Port Byron, Ill., and had two notable critics to their marriage — Diana’s parents, Lester and Dorothy Stone.
“Lester played for the Chicago Bears back in the ‘30s and was against our marriage, but I had a lot of get-up-and-go, so we got married,” said retired Rear Adm. Bull.
Whether it was Bull’s Navy Cross flying in Vietnam, his Distinguished Flying Cross or becoming the commanding officer of an aircraft carrier, Bull’s father-in-law definitely changed his mind about his son-in-law.
But Bull and his bride of 55 years have never changed their minds about each other. In fact, their union is stronger today than ever.
He first became aware of Diana in the Lutheran church they attended in Illinois.
Then at a fast-pitch church soft ball game where Bull was catching and his uncle, Joe Bull, was pitching, Diana was up in the stands sitting by a neighbor and Bull’s mother, Hazel, was sitting behind her.
“The neighbor said that pitcher Bull sure can pitch,” Bull said. “But Diana said ‘I’m more interested in the Bull behind the plate.’”
Bull’s mother carried the news to him and soon he and Diana, who was two years ahead of him in school, were going out.
Bull had recently sold a horse and purchased a Thompson Lapstrake boat that would really go, he said.
His family sold the farm and bought a home on the Mississippi River so he asked Diana to go water skiing.
“Well we got out there and she got in the water and it was pretty obvious she had never learned to swim,” Bull said. “She had a life jacket on but still, you could tell. I said ‘Why don’t you just get in the boat, Diana?,’ but she said, ‘No, if I get in the boat now, I will never learn to do this.’ And she stuck with it and learned to water ski. I knew right then that she was my kind of woman.”
They married at 18 and 19 and Diana was starting her junior year at Iowa State University, followed by Bull in his freshman year. They had not intended to have children until after college, but 13 months after getting married they had their first son Ron, in 1958, and two weeks after Diana graduated they had their second son, Vince.
Bull joined the Navy Reserve before graduating high school at 17. He then went to boot camp at Naval Station Great Lakes. He had joined the Reserve Officer Candidate Program so when he returned from boot camp he went on to college. As long as he stayed in school, kept his grades up and attended a Reserve meeting once a week in Des Moines, he was allowed to continue college. He completed Officer Candidate School in two, 10-week sessions.
By now Bull had graduated college in less than four years and was sent to Newport, R.I., in 1960 to attend his second session of OCS.
“Diana flew out to Newport, Rhode Island to be part of our graduation ceremony, seven months pregnant with our third son, Bruce,” Bull said. “Her mother had made her a white maternity dress and she was the bell of the ball.”
From there the Bulls and their three kids went to Pensacola, Fla.
“I flunked the eye exam for pilot training at Newport so I asked them what I could do,” Bull said. “They said I could be a NAO, Naval Aviation Observer.” So Bull was sent to Corpus Christi, Texas, first to get his Navigator wings and then was selected for bombardier/navigator training at Heavy Attack Naval Air Squadron (VAH) 123 at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. After designation as a B/N, he was ordered to his first operational squadron, VAH-4, one of the Navy’s carrier-based nuclear delivery squadrons.
Bull went out on the USS Bon Homme Richard (CV/CVA-31) and flew the A-3 Skywarrior, the largest jet ever assigned to carriers. The Bonnie Dick offered Pacific cruises and Cold War missions around the Pacific Rim.
Bull completed his reserve contract and got out of the Navy.
He and Diana and their 3 boys (their fourth, Dell, was born in 1965) went back to East Moline, Ill., but Bull said they were almost loved to death by his and Diana’s families. They were living within 9 miles of both their parents.
“I had three letters from the Navy asking me back in. Diana an I had not discussed it but finally I said ‘Honey are you ready to go back in the Navy?,’” Bull said.
“Yes, absolutely yes,” said Diana.
In January 1965, Bull was selected as one of VAH-123 six bombardier/navigators to be trained in the A-6A Intruder at Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia Beach, Va. Then he returned to NAS Whidbey to help set up VA-128, the first Intruder training squadron on the West Coast.
In 1967, Bull and his pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Hunter took a replacement A-6 Intruder to USS Constellation (CVA-64) on Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of Vietnam, after three A-6’s were lost on a strike on Hanoi. And then they were in the thick of the Vietnam war.
Bull said during his three cruises to Vietnam — two on the Connie and one on the USS Ranger (CV-61) — he lost approximately one-third of the flight crew every time.
On the night of October 30, 1967, he was almost lost himself.
He and pilot Hunter, assigned to attack squadron 196, were tasked with flying over Hanoi, the most heavily defended city in the world, on a single-plane strike at night, to bomb the Hanoi Railroad Ferry Slip.
Their aircraft launched off the USS Constellation’s catapult, reaching 150 knots in a space of 230 feet.
Once over land, the Intruder had to stay at minimum altitude to avoid at least 15 “hot” surface-to-air missile (SAM) sights and 597 known anti-aircraft gun sights. There was no “best way” to get in or out. They ran into SAM’s launched at them 18 miles out, then 10 miles out. Hunter waited until the last second and pulled the A-6 to a climbing, modified barrel-roll topping out at 2,500 feet. Coming out of the barrel-roll Bull reported two missiles at two o’clock and Hunter said he had three coming in at 10 0’clock. They dove down to 50 feet and escaped them. All the while, Bull was working, changing his radar screen to get them to the target the best way, while Hunter responded to incoming threats.
Down low, the muzzle blasts from multiple rows of anti-aircraft guns were like milage markers on the road, Bull said, the road to the ferry slip.
Then they were over the target. Hunter moved the A-6 to 200 feet and steadied the wings so Bull could work the computers and 18, 500-pound bombs fell toward their target. As they turned right back to the ship, another SAM site launched four missiles they were able to avoid. Then they were back on the USS Constellation.
Bull and Hunter were awarded the Navy Cross for “extra-ordinary heroism” and performance “above and beyong the call of duty” for that flight.
The home front
As Bull flew over 200 missions in Vietnam war, Diana was back in Oak Harbor, taking care of four boys.
Ron, Vince, Bruce and Dell were all big — six-foot-two is the smallest — and they loved sports, much like their father who was a wingback at Iowa State. Two of them, Ron and Bruce were athletes of the year for the Wildcats. All four played in college.
Diana shuttled them around town and took them to practices and games and raised four good men.
“I loved my boys,” said Diana.
The war was hard on her.
She never knew when she would get a visit from the chaplain telling her that Lyle was shot down, or a call that some wife in VA-196 had a husband who was shot down. She went, however, whenever the call came.
“That was hard for me,” she said. “I asked a wife what she did and she said ‘buy a big bottle of wine and stay until it’s over.’ It was such a political war. When they came home, there would be talk like the fighting was over, but then the air guys would go back and the North Vietnamese would be stocked up and ready for them.”
Bull went on to billets in Washington D.C. and perhaps his favorite commands, as the commanding officer VA-196, VA-128, of the USS San Jose (AFS 7) in 1981 and later, when it changed homeports to Guam, the USS Constellation from 1982 to 1984.
He said one of the most important lessons he learned was how easy it was to lead people.
“It’s the golden rule,” he said. “It’s easy to lead people if you treat them like you want to be treated.”
Once back when he was a commanding officer, he held a Captain’s Mast and chewed out a guy pretty hard for something it was later proven he didn’t do.
He could have handled the fact the sailor was innocent in a number of ways.
What he did was to get on the 1MC, the ship’s public address system, and announce to everyone on the ship that the guy was innocent and that he, Capt. Bull, was personally sorry for the mistake he’d made.
He was treating him like he wanted to be treated.
Bull got out of the Navy in 1998 and settled in Oak Harbor.
A few years ago when Oak Harbor High School needed a new football stadium, they also needed a leader to get it, and Bull was there. He answered the call, spearheading the effort to get the bond passed and get the stadium built in 2007.
After a lifetime in the Navy and 50 years in Oak Harbor, Admiral Lyle F. Bull and his wife Diana still answer the call, and their union is stronger than ever.