As evening approached on 11 March 1942, the relentless shelling of the waterfront area had ceased, and in the sudden stillness only the throaty growl of idling diesels and the crackle of flames could be heard. General Douglas MacArthur stood on a wooden pier on the besieged island of Corregidor in the Philippines, taking one last look at his wilting domain. Where lush vegetation and vibrantly colored tropical flowers had recently flourished, all that remained was the bleak aftermath of battle, the shattered remnants of an army on the verge of capitulation.
With the Americans and their Filipino allies making a futile last stand against a Japanese onslaught, President Franklin D. Roosevelt—not wanting the iconic MacArthur to be captured and paraded through the streets of Tokyo—had ordered the general to escape from the Philippines. The first phase of that escape required MacArthur and his family to board PT-41, a 77-foot motor torpedo boat commanded by Navy Lieutenant John D. Bulkeley.
As evening darkness descended on Manila Bay, and rain-laden clouds erased the moon, Bulkeley’s PT-41, with her precious cargo on board (including the president of the Philippines, Manuel Quezon), threaded her way through a defensive minefield and headed for the blackened waters of Mindoro Strait, where enemy ships were known to prowl. Successfully evading enemy patrols, PT-41 crossed more than 600 miles of open ocean. The harrowing journey ultimately got MacArthur to Australia, saving him from ignominious capture or death and allowing him to mount a counteroffensive in the Southwest Pacific, which eventually led to his accepting the Japanese surrender on the deck of the battleship Missouri (BB-63) three-and-a-half years later. For this and other exploits in the early days of the war, Bulkeley was awarded the Medal of Honor.
For some, the heroic moment that earns them the Medal of Honor serves as the defining moment of their lives. But for others, such as John Bulkeley, it is only a singular moment in a lifetime of achievement.
Bulkeley graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1933 and spent the prewar years in several seagoing assignments. When war came to the Pacific in December 1941, he was commanding Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three, based in the Philippines. After the Japanese invasion of the islands, he conducted numerous combat operations, damaging or destroying many enemy ships and aircraft before extracting MacArthur.
He subsequently commanded several more PT boat squadrons, including Squadron 102, which participated in the D-Day landings at Normandy. There, Bulkeley earned a Legion of Merit when he led his torpedo boats and minesweepers in clearing the lanes to Utah Beach—keeping German E-boats from attacking the landing ships—and picking up wounded sailors from the sinking minesweeper USS Tide (AM-125). Days later, now-Commander Bulkeley assumed command of the destroyer Endicott (DD-495).
Operation Dragoon—the invasion of southern France in August 1944—was designed to apply added pressure on the German Army and to provide badly needed logistical points of entry into what the Nazis had named Festung Europa (Fortress Europe). Commanding a small flotilla consisting of his destroyer, two British gunboats, and 17 PT boats, Bulkeley conducted a diversionary attack on the port city of La Ciotat. Moving into close range and engaging defending shore batteries, the flotilla sank a German merchant ship in the harbor and bombarded the city.
When two German corvettes appeared and attacked the British gunboats, they were compelled to withdraw. Despite his destroyer having only one operable gun because of mechanical malfunctions, Bulkeley ordered her to move in and engage the Germans at close range. Opening fire on the corvettes at 1,500 yards, the Endicott succeeded in drawing fire away from the British gunboats. One of the German ships scored a direct hit on the charging destroyer that fortunately did not detonate but tore a gaping hole and killed a U.S. sailor. Dueling with the two German ships at close range with her single gun for nearly an hour, the Endicott eventually prevailed, sinking the two corvettes and then harvesting 169 German POWs from the waters while continuing to engage targets ashore.
Bulkeley was awarded the Silver Star for his actions that day. The accompanying citation credits him with “aggressive leadership, cool and intrepid action” while pressing “his attack with great skill and courage in delivering accurate and vigorous gunfire against the enemy.” When a reporter later asked why he had taken on the two German ships at La Ciotat with his outgunned destroyer, Bulkeley answered: “What else could I do? You engage, you fight, you win. That is the reputation of our Navy, then and in the future.”
Bulkeley remained in service through the Korean War, commanding a destroyer division that engaged enemy shore batteries and conducted numerous support operations when the Chinese entered the war.
He later commanded the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba before retiring from active duty in 1967, but was later recalled to serve as commander of the Navy’s Board of Inspection and Survey. In 1988, after 55 years of service, Bulkeley again retired from the Navy as a vice admiral.
In 2001, the 34th Arleigh Burke–class destroyer was commissioned as the USS Bulkeley (DDG-84) in his honor. Her coat of arms includes a PT boat parting the waves while surrounded by the rays of a Philippine sun.