Every generation or so, truly extraordinary men are born- ones who manage to go through life and impact the lives of other extraordinary men. While often not as famous as the people they impact, part of their legendary status is their relatively obscure place in history, quite happy to play the role that they did.
Lesser known or not, such men are worthy of remembrance, and John D. Bulkeley is one such man.
Born in New York City in 1911, Bulkeley grew up on a farm in Hackettstown, New Jersey. Following graduation from high school, he attended the United States Naval Academy, earning his commission in 1933 and entering the US Navy.
When World War II broke out, John “Wild Man” Bulkeley was a young Lieutenant in command of a PT boat squadron in the Philippines, facing down the Japanese onslaught first hand and proving himself as a cunning and courageous leader. During his operations assisting the beleaguered -but ultimately doomed- American forces in the area during the Japanese attack, Braving enemy fire in his swift wooden boat to rescue General Douglas MacArthur, his family and essential staff, the plucky skipper of PT41 pushed his torpedo boats through 600 nautical miles of open ocean in order to get MacArthur to Mindanao, where he was evacuated by a B-17 bomber.
“You have taken me out of the jaws of death,” MacArthur told him. “I shall never forget it.”
The actions in the Philippines would earn “Wild Man” the Medal of Honor, citing his heroism in performing numerous rescues and wreaking havoc upon the Japanese Imperial Navy.
Heading back to the United States in the fall of 1942, Lt. Bulkeley was helping raise War Bonds when he met the father of John F. Kennedy, eventually meeting the future president himself and recruiting him into the US Navy’s Motor Torpedo Boat Training Center. Had Kennedy never captained PT109 and endured his hardships during the war, it is unlikely that he would have won his first campaign for Congress.
When 1944 came around, Bulkeley would participate in D-Day, driving off German fast-attack boats and escorting minesweepers as Allied ships made their way to Utah Beach.
While still in the European Theater, Bulkeley -now in command of a destroyer- came to the rescue of two British vessels who were being attacked by German corvettes. Despite being heavily outgunned and with only one functioning weapon on his own ship, Bulkeley charged right through the enemy formation, killing both vessels with point-blank fire.
When asked why he charged, he simply replied, “What else could I do? You engage, you fight, you win. That is the reputation of our Navy, then and in the future.”
After World War II, Bulkeley led a Destroyer Division during the Korean War. When the 1960s came around, he was assigned to command the tri-service units at Clarksville Base in Tennessee, which at the time was an immensely intricate network of bunkers and tunnels that served as a repository for one-third of America’s nuclear weapons capability. Guarded by Marines issued live rounds and ordered to shoot on sight, Clarksville base was secured- but not secure enough for Bulkeley.
Now a rear admiral in his 50s, Bulkeley -known as “Big Bopper” by those who worked at the base- bet the Marines that he could infiltrate their security network and plant bombs.
“Sometime this week, I will sneak in,” he told the Marines, who scoffed at the notion of an old man getting past their security perimeter.
The following morning, the Big Bopper himself donned a rubber scuba suit, painted his face and infiltrated the base, carrying paint cans. On the cans, he had scrawled a simple message: “This is a bomb. Got you.”
Less than 24 hours later, Bulkeley rolled up in signature his cherry-red Triumph TR3 (with silver PT Boat hood ornament), summoned the Marines, told them they were worthless and banished them back to the fleet.
After his time at Clarksville base, Bulkeley was promoted to vice admiral by none other than President John F. Kennedy -the very man he had recruited into the Navy- and given command of Guantanamo Bay in Cuba- right in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Ever the daring commando, the now retirement-aged flag officer had to be reigned in by commanders and subordinates alike, as he had plans to single-handedly sneak out of “Gitmo” and cripple Cuba’s electrical grid.
While the Big Bopper didn’t get to take out Cuba like he had hoped, he did make Gitmo a self-sufficient place by ordering the installation of desalination equipment. While that might not sound like a big deal, it’s quite crucial for the little base, as Cuba controlled the supply of fresh water.
In 1975, Bulkeley retired from active duty, but remained in retired-retained status, serving as head of the Navy’s Board of Inspection and Survey. He would formally retire from service in 1988, serving a total of 55 years.
In 1996, Vice Admiral Bulkeley would peacefully pass away in his Maryland home, deciding that 84 was a good age to go. Speculations abound that death showed up in a cherry red Triumph, exited the vehicle, held the driver-side door open for the vice admiral, and then promptly sat down in the passenger seat before the duo drove off into forever.
Bulkeley was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, and the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Bulkeley was named in his honor, presumably because there were no aircraft carriers, military bases or superweapons (which would be more worthy of his moniker) to name after him at the time.
It is rumoured that, unlike other ships of her class, the USS Bulkeley’s stern dips more than other ships- as she bears two massive rudders to represent the giant balls of steel that her namesake possessed. This, however, has yet to be proven or formally documented by the US Navy.
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