'Bold buckaroo' motivates Mid Medal of Honor winner, rescuer of MacArthur meets young 'shipmate'

November 13, 1993|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Staff Writer

The portrait stopped Christine Miller in her tracks as she strolled down the hallway of the Hackettstown, N.J., High School several years ago: A stony-faced naval officer in dress whites, with a large medal suspended around his neck.

"I said, 'A Medal of Honor winner. Wow!' " recalled Ms. Miller, now an 18-year-old freshman at the U.S. Naval Academy.

She asked her teachers and her principal about this man, John D. Bulkeley. And she read "Sea Wolf," detailing the World War II exploits that helped make him one of the most decorated fighting men in U.S. history.

After a 59-year career in the Navy, the retired admiral performed one final -- though unwitting -- duty: Serving as the inspiration for his fellow Hackettstown High graduate to enter the Naval Academy.

She wrote to him in June inviting him to her high school graduation. But he was on a trip to France, placing a wreath near the graves of his D-Day comrades.

"He sent me a picture and autographed it. Right now it's in my room," Midshipman Miller said. "It's a reminder when things get tough. I look at it and say he's my motivation."

They finally met a few days ago in an academy conference room. She nervously greeted the man Gen. Douglas MacArthur called "that bold buckaroo with the cold green eyes."

He is the PT-boat skipper who whisked MacArthur to safety from the Japanese-surrounded Philippines. He helped sweep mines off the Normandy beaches in the tense weeks before D-Day and later commanded a ship that sank two German ships in the Mediterranean.

As a destroyer captain in the Korean War, he led MacArthur's daring, amphibious attack at Inchon.

When he was commander of the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Admiral Bulkeley argued with President Fidel Castro, leading the Cuban leader to denounce him as "a gorilla of the worst species" and put a $50,000 price on his head.

In the late 1960s, the admiral began a 20-year detailed inspection of Navy ships, submarines and planes, that some observers say was crucial in making the U.S. fleet battle ready for the Persian Gulf War.

A few days ago, in good-natured gruffness, the 82-year-old admiral ordered the small, freckled plebe to straighten her tie. He peppered her with questions about his career and the academy, from which he graduated in 1933.

Then he sat down and autographed a print of a painting that showed his PT boat in action off Normandy, with him, then a lieutenant commander, on the bridge. In his inscription he bestowed what he explained was the supreme compliment. He referred to her as a "shipmate."

L The World War II hero almost didn't get his Navy commission.

He graduated from the academy 394th among his 431 classmates. Those at the bottom of the class got a degree -- but were denied an ensign's rank. A year later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt recalled those who had not been commissioned.

In those dismal months after Pearl Harbor, the Lieutenant Bulkeley was in the Philippines with a squadron of PT boats. As the Japanese forces encircled the islands, a main concern in Washington was getting MacArthur out.

On the night of March 11, 1942, PT-41 slipped into the inky seas off Corregidor with MacArthur, his family and senior commanders.

The Japanese had 22 ships lurking among the islands, convinced there would be an evacuation and confident they could intercept the top American command.

As the PT boat charged south, the Army generals -- including MacArthur -- were violently seasick.

Suddenly they spotted a Japanese cruiser on the horizon.

"I immediately did a hard right turn, right into the sun and into the seas," Admiral Bulkeley recalled. "They never saw us, damn fools."

They later narrowly escaped discovery by an enemy destroyer and were almost detected by Japanese coastal artillery. Still, the party reached Mindanao right on schedule.

The theatrical MacArthur straightened and turned to the young skipper. "Bulkeley, you've taken me out of the jaws of death, and I won't forget it," he declared.

Neither did the folks back home. For this and other exploits, Admiral Bulkeley picked up the Medal of Honor from the president and a ticker-tape parade in New York. Later there was a movie based on his Pacific adventures, "They Were Expendable," with Robert Montgomery as PT skipper "John Brickley."

The admiral brushes aside suggestions of bravery.

"C'mon," he says, leaning back. "I was a young pup, and I enjoyed it. Furthermore, when you see something that has to be done, you do it. You don't tremble with fear."

The old warrior is somewhat bashful when talk turns to Christine Miller, and he tries to stop any talk of his role as an inspiration.

"I never inspired anybody," the Silver Spring resident grumbles, adding quietly, "That's nice of her."

Will we see the day when a woman naval officer can earn a long list of medals for bravery?

Before he has a chance to answer, Alice, his wife of 55 years, smiles and nods steadily without looking up from her book. "She's shaking her head up and down," he says, pointing toward her.

"I don't know," the admiral says. "It depends on the individual and whether or not they have the instinct for the kill. You know it's instantaneous when you go for it."

For Midshipman Miller, there is no doubt that one day female officers will be among the Navy's great heroes.

"They've only been at the academy 16 years," she notes. "That isn't a whole lot of time for a female to graduate and have a career.

"But they're coming," she stresses. "Female, male, hey, they're different, but they're still leaders."

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