John Bulkeley was a 1933 graduate of the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Since Bulkeley could not gain an appointment to the Academy from his hometown in New Jersey, he got one from Texas instead. Bulkeley joined the Army Flying Corps after leaving the Academy due to the fact that he had graduated as a civilian – he was not among the top 50 percent who were automatically given commissions in the Navy or Marine Corps. However, after a year with the Flying Corps, Bulkeley was able to receive a commission as an officer in the US Navy in March 1934.
Bulkeley’s first assignment was as an ensign on the USS Indianapolis. While Bulkeley was on temporary leave from the Indianapolis in 1936, he got involved with an incident concerning the Japanese ambassador (whom Bulkeley assumed to be a spy) and his briefcase, which ended up in the hands of US Naval Intelligence through Bulkeley. Though his superiors in the Navy were not pleased, he was not discharged, but instead, Bulkeley was reassigned to the USS Sacramento as Chief Engineer. This old, coal-burning gunboat was stationed along the Chinese coast as part of the Asiatic Fleet. Although Bulkeley’s first attempt at espionage failed, it did not end, and for a portion of his duty with the Sacramento, Bulkeley was on shore, observing the Japanese movements. While on the Sacramento, Bulkeley met his future wife, Hilda Alice Wood, in 1937.
By the start of World War Two, Bulkeley had risen to the rank of Lieutenant. In September 1941, he was given command of the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three, consisting of six boats, which were soon sent to the Philippine Islands. While the Japanese were attacking Pearl Harbor on December 7th, they were also assaulting the Philippines at technically the same time although, due to time zones, it was actually on December 8th. In the Philippines, most of the Navy’s air forces were destroyed, and anything that remained was ordered to leave the islands. The defense of the islands was left to P-40 planes and Bulkeley’s Patrol Torpedo (PT) boats. Despite the poor conditions and a lack of repair materials, facilities, and fuel, Bulkeley kept his squadron operational for over four months while also repelling Japanese landing parties, transports, armed cruisers, aircraft, and occasionally fighting against land forces. On March 11, 1942, when General Douglas MacArthur, his family, and the Philippine president were forced to leave the island of Corregidor, it was Bulkeley’s boat who picked them up for the 600-mile escape journey through waters full of Japanese boats to Mindanao. Bulkeley and his squadron continued operating in Philippine waters until April 1942. For his actions during the previous five months, Bulkeley was awarded the Medal of Honor. Bulkeley’s achievements during this time are believed to be without precedent. He and his squadron impeded Japanese movement with the damage and destruction of a large number of enemy planes, surface combatant and merchant ships, and landing parties, during which Bulkeley’s boats went without repair or maintenance.
Bulkeley was also awarded several other honors for specific events that occurred during the months covered by the Medal of Honor. During the fighting on January 18, 1942, near Luzon in the Philippine Islands, Bulkeley was awarded both the Navy Cross and the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). He earned the former by sinking a 5,000-ton German ship in the Binanga Bay Harbor despite being shot at with machine guns and three-inch artillery shells. Though he started the assault with another PT boat at his side, by the time Bulkeley was in torpedo range of the enemy ship, his partner had been disabled and Bulkeley destroyed the ship on his own. It was these actions on January 18th as well as events on the 25th that brought Bulkeley the recognition of the DSC. On January 25th, Bulkeley was still near Luzon when he attacked an enemy merchant ship near Sampaloc Point. Though he got off the first shot with a torpedo and damaged the enemy ship, Bulkeley still had to fight as the ship returned fire and was supported by artillery on shore. By taking this ship out, Bulkeley hindered the hostile forces on the west side of the Bataan Province in the Philippines.
For his rescue of General MacArthur, Lieutenant (Lt.) Bulkeley was also awarded the Silver Star. In a mission that lasted three days, Bulkeley showed a calm collectedness and bravery during this hazardous situation against a superior enemy force.
On the night of April 8, 1942, Lt. Bulkeley and two of his PT boats (one of which he was on) were patrolling the waters around the Mindanao Sea when they encountered an enemy cruiser (large warship) escorted by several destroyers (smaller warships). Though severely out-gunned, Bulkeley nonetheless ordered his boats to attack. Once his own ship had used all its torpedoes, Bulkeley drew the enemy’s attention to his own boat in order to allow his fellow torpedo boat to advance for a close-range attack. With this daring maneuver, Bulkeley and his men were able to destroy the cruiser. Having few weapons with which to engage the destroyers at this point, Bulkeley chose to retreat, and successfully evaded the enemy ships. Lt. Bulkeley was awarded a second DSC for these actions, shown by a bronze oak leaf cluster pinned to his first award.
In July 1943, Bulkeley was promoted to a Lieutenant Commander (Lt. Cmdr.) and took part in the Invasion of the Trobriand Islands, which lie northeast of Papua New Guinea. In December 1943, Bulkeley was in the States for a war bond tour when he met and was instrumental in recruiting John F. Kennedy to the Navy’s Motor Torpedo Boat Training Center (MTBTC) in Rhode Island.
Bulkeley next took part in the invasion of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944. Bulkeley and his PT boats were responsible for keeping lanes in the Bay of Seine cleared so Allied troops could reach Utah Beach, and preventing German E-boats from getting too close to the landing ships. They also rescued wounded sailors from ships which were sinking for various reasons, such as the USS Tide, the USS Rich, and the USS Corry. After Normandy, Bulkeley was given command of his first large ship, the USS Endicott, a destroyer, and was promoted to the rank of Commander. Bulkeley was also awarded the Legion of Merit with a Combat “V” for his actions during Normandy.
In August 1944, the USS Endicott, two British warships, the HMS Scarab and the HMS Aphis, and several PT boats were involved in the Battle of La Ciotat. By attacking the port of La Ciotat, France, Allied troops hoped to draw the Germans away from some main landing zones at Cavalaire-sur-Mer, Saint-Tropez, and Saint Raphaël, along the southeastern coast of France. Sending in the PT boats first, the larger warships waited outside of the harbor. One sunken merchant ship and a shelled town later, and two German ships emerged from the harbor. One was a corvette (small warship) and the other an armed yacht. The British ships engaged the enemy vessels first, but were unable to defeat them and retreated to a safer distance. Despite being out-gunned by the German boats (only one was in operation on the Endicott), Bulkeley was able to sink both ships after days of fighting in close range. The Endicott then rescued and imprisoned 169 German sailors. For these actions, Lt. Cmdr. Bulkeley was given a gold star to signify a second award of the Silver Star.
During the Korean War in 1952, Bulkeley commanded Destroyer Division 132. After the Korean War had ended, he was made Chief of Staff for Cruiser Division Five. In the early 1960s, Bulkeley commanded Clarksville Base, Tennessee, a tri-service command under the support of the Defense Atomic Support Agency. Bulkeley was known to test the Marines guarding the classified area by donning a ninja suit, and blackening his face to attempt to sneak in. He was a favorite among his men.
Bulkeley was promoted to Rear Admiral by John F. Kennedy in June 1963, then sent to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba, as its commander. During the Cold War, Bulkeley easily dealt with the Cuban threats of turning off the water supply by installing desalinization equipment on the base. These threats came after the Bay of Pigs incident. Indeed, Bulkeley cut the water line that Castro turned off in a visible sign that the US base would not depend on Cuba for water – and it still does not to this day.
In total, Bulkeley was awarded a total of 28 medals which he wore pinned under his Surface Warfare Officer Insignia. These honors include the Medal of Honor, the Navy Cross, the Distinguished Service Cross w/a bronze oak leaf cluster, the Silver Star w/a gold star, the Legion of Merit w/ a combat “V” and a gold star, the Joint Service Commendation Medal, the Combat Action Ribbon w/ 2 gold stars, the Navy Presidential Unit Citation, the Army Presidential Unit Citation w/a bronze oak leaf cluster, the China Service Medal, the American Defense Service Medal w/fleet clasp, the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal w/ 3 bronze stars, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal w/2 bronze stars, the WWII Victory Medal, the National Defense Service Medal w/ a bronze star, the Korean Service Medal, the Navy and Marine Corps Overseas Service Ribbon, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal w/two gold stars, the Purple Heart w/ a gold star, the Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation, Philippine Defense Medal, United Nations Korea Medal, Republic of Korea War Service Medal, the Navy Expert Rifleman Medal, the Navy Expert Pistol Shot Medal, the Croix de Guerre w/palm (France), and the Distinguished Conduct Star w/silver star (Philippines).
Bulkeley retired from active duty in 1975, but was recalled as retired-retained status to continue to serve as the commander (president) of the Navy’s Board of Inspection and Survey (INSURV) for which position he was first chosen in 1967. This board conducts inspections of US Naval ships before they are commissioned and deployed. While serving in this position, Bulkeley was awarded three Navy Distinguished Service Medals for his excellent work in enhancing the safety of the Navy’s ships and in raising the level of ship inspections. Bulkeley officially retired in 1988 as a Vice Admiral. He died in 1996 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
A guided missile destroyer, commissioned in 2001, was named after him, as well as Route 57 in New Jersey, which is now called the “Admiral John D. Bulkeley Memorial Highway”. The headquarters building at the Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is named Bulkeley Hall in honor of him. Bulkeley was inducted into the Surface Navy Association in 2005.
In movies, Bulkeley is loosely portrayed in the 1945 film, They Were Expendable, which is based off a book of the same name by William L. White. He is also portrayed in MacArthur (1977), which tells the story of General MacArthur’s escape from the Philippines aboard Bulkeley’s boat.