Admiral Bulkeley mourned as 'true hero' MacArthur's rescuer, Castro's nemesis

April 20, 1996|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF

Retired Vice Adm. John D. Bulkeley, a gruff sea wolf who saved Gen. Douglas MacArthur from the Japanese, helped keep German forces at bay during the D-Day invasion and, years later, was marked for death by Fidel Castro, was laid to rest yesterday at Arlington National Cemetery.

The World War II exploits of Admiral Bulkeley, who died April 6 at 84, made him one of the country's most-decorated heroes. He was awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the French Croix de Guerre by Gen. Charles De Gaulle.

"We applaud a true American hero a man who symbolizes the very best about our Navy and our nation," said Adm. Jeremy M. Boorda, chief of naval operations, at a ceremony that was attended by members of Congress, grizzled veterans, academy classmates and fresh-faced midshipmen.

Admiral Bulkeley was a PT boat skipper in 1942, when he gained national fame for rescuing MacArthur from the Philippines as Japanese troops closed in. Then-Lieutenant Bulkeley whisked MacArthur, his family and senior commanders off the island of Corregidor in the middle of the night and outflanked Japanese ships before they reached the safety of Mindanao.

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

His daring earned him a ticker-tape parade in New York City and was the inspiration for a Hollywood feature film about PT boat crews, "They Were Expendable," with Robert Montgomery, as "Lt. John Brickley," and John Wayne.

In the weeks before the Allied invasion of Normandy, Admiral Bulkeley took part in minesweeping operations off the French coast and helped keep German naval vessels away from the attacking forces.

"The thing that few remember is the importance that the Navy had in that invasion," said Donald McKee, 72, an Army veteran of the 29th Division that stormed the Normandy beaches, who also recalled the huge naval shells slamming into the German entrenchments. Later, Mr. McKee became a neighbor of Admiral Bulkeley in Silver Spring and would accompany him to ceremonies and reunions. "He didn't like ceremony at all," Mr. McKee, recalled with a chuckle. "He was a no-nonsense kind of guy."

In the mid-1960s, Admiral Bulkeley, then commander of the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had a celebrated run-in with Cuban President Fidel Castro, who termed the naval hero "a gorilla of the worst species" and put a 50,000-peso price on his head. When the Cuban leader turned off the water to the base, Admiral Bulkeley had a desalinization plant built that made the base independent of water from the Cuban government.

The admiral's son, Navy Capt. Peter W. Bulkeley, remembered asking his father to sum up his life, as he was fading in the past several months. The admiral offered a characteristically blunt and crisp reply: "Interesting. Fascinating. Beneficial to the United States."

During the ceremony and later at the gravesite on a sloping hill not far from the grave of another PT boat skipper, John F. Kennedy, a young midshipman wiped away tears. Midshipman 2nd Class Chrissy Miller and the admiral came from the same hometown, Hackettstown, N.J.

After she read his book "Sea Wolf," Admiral Bulkeley became her inspiration to attend the academy. They met when she was a freshman and corresponded for several years. His autographed picture is in her room.

"I have all the letters he's written me, and I read them last night," Midshipman Miller said, as the mourners drifted away. "He barely knew me, but he was always giving me encouragement."

Pub Date: 4/20/96

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