Honoring an 84-year-old Navy hero He helped MacArthur escape Philippines in war

November 12, 1995|By Edward Lee and Tom Bowman | Edward Lee and Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF

Nothing surprises retired Vice Admiral John D. Bulkeley anymore.

Not the Japanese cruiser that nearly caught Admiral Bulkeley and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the general's family and senior commanders as they escaped from the Philippines in 1942.

Not Robert Montgomery's portrayal of the admiral as then-PT skipper "John Brickley" in the movie, "They Were Expendable."

And not the bust that the Naval Academy dedicated yesterday morning at the school's planetarium.

"I wasn't surprised," the admiral said. "If they had told me that my enemies -- the ones I forgot to kill -- would be at the ceremony, then I would have been surprised. But this stuff doesn't bother me at all."

The admiral, whom Gen. Douglas MacArthur called "that bold buckaroo with the cold green eyes," was joined by his wife of 57 years, Alice, and other family members at the small ceremony at the Luce Hall planetarium.

The 84-year-old Admiral Bulkeley said he didn't think much about the Veterans Day dedication ceremony.

"It's routine. It's just another day," said the Silver Spring resident. "I'm in my 80s. I can afford to be blase about it."

Mrs. Bulkeley chided her husband for his indifference.

"I think it's very nice because the country needs a hero, someone to look up to," Mrs. Bulkeley said. "I think they're trying to do that for the younger people at the Naval Academy."

In addition to his Pacific duty, Admiral Bulkeley helped sweep mines off the Normandy beaches in the tense weeks before D-Day and later commanded a ship that sank two German vessels 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 to making the U.S. fleet battle-ready for the Persian Gulf War.

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

In 1933, he graduated from the academy 394th in a class of 431. Those at the bottom got a degree, but were denied an ensign's rank. A year later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt recalled to duty those who had not been commissioned.

In the months after Pearl Harbor, then-Lieutenant Bulkeley was stationed in the Philippines with a squadron of PT boats. As the Japanese forces closed in, 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, convinced there would be an evacuation and confident they could intercept America's top officers, had 22 ships lurking among the islands.

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."

The group later narrowly escaped discovery by an enemy destroyer and was almost detected by Japanese coastal artillery. Still, it reached Mindanao 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.

For his exploits, Admiral Bulkeley was awarded the Medal of Honor and given a ticker-tape parade in New York.

In a 1993 interview with The Sun, the admiral brushed aside suggestions of bravery.

"Come on," he said. "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."

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