The Extraordinary Life of John D. Bulkeley: A Decorated Naval Hero

John D. Bulkeley, born on August 19, 1911, and passing on April 6, 1996, was a vice admiral in the United States Navy and one of its most decorated officers. Known for his extraordinary heroics during World War II, Bulkeley received the Medal of Honor for his actions in the Pacific Theater. His legacy includes the daring evacuation of General Douglas MacArthur from Corregidor and a command at the Battle of La Ciotat. His story is immortalized through both literature and film, ensuring his valor is remembered for generations.

Early Life and Struggles: Born in New York City, Bulkeley spent his formative years on a farm in Hackettstown, New Jersey. He graduated from Hackettstown High School before attending the United States Naval Academy, where he graduated in 1933. These early years on the farm likely instilled in him a sense of resilience and hard work, qualities that would define his military career.

Military Enlistment and Heroics: Bulkeley's naval career began in earnest in December 1936 when he was assigned to the United States Asiatic Fleet. As the engineering officer onboard the USS Sacramento (PG-19) in China, he witnessed significant events like the Japanese invasions of Shantou and Shanghai and the USS Panay incident. These experiences in the Second Sino-Japanese War would shape his strategic acumen and readiness for the impending global conflict.

Defining Moment: The defining moment of Bulkeley's career came at the onset of World War II. As a lieutenant commanding Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three in the Philippines, Bulkeley's leadership was instrumental in resisting Japanese advances. On March 11, 1942, he famously evacuated General Douglas MacArthur, his family, and staff from Corregidor, navigating over 600 nautical miles of perilous waters. MacArthur's words upon arrival, "You have taken me out of the jaws of death. I shall never forget it," are a testament to Bulkeley's heroism.

Bulkeley's exploits during this period were chronicled in the novel "They Were Expendable" by William Lindsay White, later adapted into a film directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne. These accounts brought Bulkeley's bravery to the public eye, cementing his status as a war hero.

Post-War Life and Career: Following World War II, Bulkeley continued to serve with distinction. He participated in the Normandy invasion, leading torpedo boats and minesweepers to clear lanes to Utah Beach. In 1952, during the Korean War, he commanded Destroyer Division 132 and later served as Chief of Staff for Cruiser Division Five.

In the early 1960s, Bulkeley commanded Clarksville Base in Tennessee, where he was known for his unconventional methods of testing security. Promoted to rear admiral by President John F. Kennedy, he later commanded the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, ensuring its self-sufficiency by installing desalinization equipment amidst Cuban threats.

Even after retiring in 1975, Bulkeley's expertise was in demand. He was recalled to serve as the commander of the Navy's Board of Inspection and Survey, eventually retiring as a vice admiral in 1988 after a remarkable 55 years of service.

Military Awards and Decorations: Bulkeley's commendations reflect his valor and dedication. His awards include:

  • Medal of Honor
  • Navy Cross
  • Distinguished Service Cross
  • Navy Distinguished Service Medal
  • Silver Star
  • Legion of Merit
  • Purple Heart
  • Joint Service Commendation Medal
  • Combat Action Ribbon
  • Navy Presidential Unit Citation
  • Army Presidential Unit Citation
  • China Service Medal
  • American Defense Service Medal
  • Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal
  • European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal
  • World War II Victory Medal
  • National Defense Service Medal
  • Korean Service Medal
  • Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation
  • Philippine Defense Medal
  • United Nations Korea Medal
  • Republic of Korea War Service Medal
  • Navy Expert Rifleman Medal
  • Navy Expert Pistol Shot Medal

These decorations are a testament to his extraordinary heroism and service across multiple theaters of war.

Conclusion: Vice Admiral John D. Bulkeley's legacy is a profound testament to courage, leadership, and dedication. His actions during World War II, particularly the daring evacuation of General MacArthur, highlight a career marked by bravery and strategic brilliance. From his early days witnessing the turbulence of pre-war China to his decisive roles in World War II and the Korean War, Bulkeley's life was one of unwavering commitment to his country. His numerous awards and lasting recognition, including the naming of the USS Bulkeley (DDG-84), ensure that his heroism will not be forgotten. John D. Bulkeley remains an enduring symbol of American naval valor and resilience.

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.